George MacKay may not be a rock star, but he brings a certain punk rock swagger to his role as Australia's iconic folk hero Ned Kelly, a 19th century bushranger/outlaw/gangleader and convicted police murderer whose story has been told before but whose story is likely to continue to be told time and time again.
Known for being defiantly anti-discrimination and corruption, Kelly's reputation has only grown in mythic proportions over the years as it continues to be handed down by generations of commonfolk who identify with Kelly's humble beginnings and unapologetic defiance. This not so true story true story, directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) from a Shaun Grant screenplay based on a Peter Carey novel, opts for the more relatable Kelly, a timid powder keg of repressed emotions as a child (Orlando Schwerdt) and a brutal, often cold-hearted killer with a keen bent toward social justice as an adult (MacKay).
Rumored to have muttered the words "such is life" upon his dying breath, Kelly's life is captured here with all its dirt and grime, a sort of cinematic primal scream that kicks off with the haunting imagery of a white horse galloping amidst a barren forest with a rider adorned by a bloody red dress.
The film never lets up.
Kelly's story has always been a compelling one, impossible to truly sympathize with yet he's also a chap whose nearly impossible to hate despite having performed his share of truly dastardly deeds. His father was sent away when Kelly was young, Ned's attraction to a life of crime having seemingly been come by naturally and with little doubt about where it would go. One of 12 children to Ellen (Essie Davis), he was rather seductively nurtured toward his inevitably way of life before being further mentored by Russell Crowe's Harry Power, whose time on-screen is brief yet unforgettable.
Orlando Schwerdt has the unenviable task of making Kelly seem human, a vulnerable child who defies vulnerability and whose first time shooting a gun seems to leave him somewhere between absolute terror and first orgasm. By the time George MacKay, whom you should remember for his remarkably humane and criminally under-appreciated turn in 1917, takes over the role it's obvious that there's no turning back for Ned Kelly. All the rawness that we felt from MacKay in 1917 is even more guttural here. There's a gleam in his eyes as he terrorizes the likes of Charlie Hunnam's Sgt. O'Neil, himself constantly toying with the Kelly family, and Nicholas Hoult's joyfully demented Constable Fitzpatrick.
Kelly comes close to gaining our sympathy, a fine credit to MacKay's performance and a testament to the fact that the Brits who surrounded him were even more bastards with the law on their side. Often narrating the story himself, Kelly makes us believe in things we ought to feel guilty for believing in but really don't.
The film's climactic moments are mesmerizing, stylized yet substantial and hauntingly devastating in their lasting impact. Jed Kurzel's original score screeches and taunts, jars and swivels around Kelly and his gang while Ari Wegner's lensing dances between uncomfortable intimacy and wide panoramic shots. Janie Parker's art direction is inspired and immersive, while Karen Murphy's production design goes seven layers deep into simplicity. Alice Babidge's costume design is uniquely exceptional yet appropriate always.
Ned Kelly's story has been alive forever, credited as the subject of the first full-length feature film in 1906 with Charles Tait's The Story of the Kelly Gang yet also subject to more recent efforts including Mick Jagger's rockin' and rollin' turn in Tony Richardson's 1970 semi-classic featuring Shel Silverstein music and Heath Ledger's more recent take on Kelly in 2003's Gregor Jordan production. True History of the Kelly Gang is a beast all its own, a film that tells a true story in untrue ways yet, just maybe, gives us more of Ned Kelly than we've actually ever seen before. Dark and grim, brutal yet exhilarating, this IFC Films production deserves a life on the big screen but COVID-19 knocked Kelly out and we're left to be grateful for this weekend's digital and VOD release to keep us company in the comfort of our socially distant homes.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic