“History” is the key word here.
Arriving Friday on VOD systems, True History of the Kelly Gang is far from the first time the Australian outlaw’s story — or something resembling it — has inspired filmmakers.
A century ago, there was The Kelly Gang (1920) and its cinematic follow-ups, When the Kellys Were Out and When the Kellys Rode (1934). That trilogy was actually late to the party, since 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang is considered by many to be the first feature-length film.
A couple of adaptations later, Mick Jagger awkwardly played him in Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1970) and Heath Ledger took the role in 2003. In between, Australian comedian Yahoo Serious spoofed him in 1993’s Reckless Kelly. There was even a musical that played in Sydney in 1977. (Trivia: John Paul Young, of “Love is in the Air” fame, sang on the concept album.)
Newcomers to the story may be less surprised by the take taken this time out by director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant (adapting the Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey). They seem less interested in his crimes — which seem overstuffed into the film’s final quarter — and neither are they terribly interested in making him a monster or a Robin Hood-ish hero, as he seems to have been reduced to in the cultural consciousness.
Instead, their film feels more like Joker, albeit a more nuanced, less derivative Joker. And while it focused on Kelly’s origin story, it held me. Uncomfortably. And I mean that in a good way.
Young Ned’s complex relationship with his do-what-she-needs-to-do-to-survive mother (a bold, unapologetic Essie Davis) and a teacher of lessons useful and dangerous (Russell Crowe) provides the focus early on. From the first scenes, Ned tries to fight against both nature and nurture. And even though we know he will fail, the slide is more interesting because of this sense of struggle. That holds true as the character is handed off from young Orlando Schwerdt to adult George MacKay.
MacKay proves as adept here as he did in his leading role in 1917 at giving an inner life to a character with little to say. When the more familiar action takes place later in the film — and when Kelly’s iconic metal mask covers his face — the film feels more obligatory.
Still, MacKay’s moves aren’t like Joker … or Jagger … or Ledger … or any others who have taken the role. Here, he takes a legend and makes him a human being. I wasn’t rooting for him. But I wasn’t not rooting for him either.
As to the title, I’ll leave how true this history is to the historians.