True History of the Kelly Gang stars George MacKay as a heavily fictionalised Ned Kelly

The True History of the Kelly Gang (MA15+)

2 stars

The writer (Shaun Grant) and director (Justin Kurzel) of the grim, Snowtown (2011) have joined forces again to create another downbeat dramatic film based on historical events. True History of the Kelly Gang is distinctive and violent, with effective elements and moments that don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.

George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang. Picture: Transmission Films

George MacKay in True History of the Kelly Gang. Picture: Transmission Films

Preceding - and bleeding into - this film's title are the words "Nothing you're about to see is true." It's a nice variation on the standard movie claims like "This is a true story" and refreshingly honest.

While "nothing" might be an overstatement, there's certainly a lot here that's made up, whatever your viewpoint on Australia's best-known bushranger, Ned Kelly. Perhaps, in its somewhat outre way, this latest version of an often explored story is trying to establish an alternative to the romantic legend of Ned as persecuted rebel. And the style as well as the content is certainly different from other screen accounts.

I haven't read Peter Carey's award-winning, apparently heavily fictionalised novel of the same name but, as always, a film derived from another source must stand on its own. And True History of the Kelly Gang, I gather, makes its own changes.

It begins with the child Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) living in poverty where his siblings, drunken layabout father Red and fiercely possessive mother Ellen (Essie Davis), who sexually services the police, seemingly to avoid harassment.

When Ned rescues a boy from drowning, the latter's grateful, wealthy mother gives Ned a gold sash (which is apparently true) and offers to pay to send him to boarding school (which seems to be fiction). Ellen proudly refuses and in the film it seems this is what seals Ned's destiny.

Ellen has no qualms about selling the boy to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) as an apprentice, though, but after a particularly harrowing experience he returns home, not yet ready to embrace the violence that will come in his future. Crowe, bulked up and heavily bearded, manages to make an impression in his brief screen time as the intimidating outlaw.

This part of the film is the more realistically handled and features good performances along with some slightly heavyhanded touches (like peering through slits in walls to foreshadow the armour to come). Sometimes it's hard to make out the dialogue through certain cast members' heavy "Oirish" accents.

There's a jump to Ned's later life and some of the Kelly gang's best-known exploits. like the fatal encounter with the police at Stringybark Creek and the siege at Glenrowan. But the visual trickery employed and the frequent depiction of the Kelly gang in dresses (not just for disguise; ostensibly to seem "mad" and intimidate the enemy) become distracting.

Russell Crowe, left and Orlando Schwerdt in True History of the Kelly Gang. Picture: Transmission Films

Russell Crowe, left and Orlando Schwerdt in True History of the Kelly Gang. Picture: Transmission Films

George MacKay (also on our screens now in 1917) seems strange casting for Ned. He's a British actor speaking (convincingly) with a broad Australian accent rather than the Irish one often employed - the latter is fair enough, but why not just cast an Australian? Not that MacKay is untalented but the depiction of a clean-shaven, callow-looking (if not behaving) Ned jars. This Kelly is a little opaque - as indeed are the other gang members, with little to differentiate them. The main policemen in the story, played by Nicholas Hoult and Charlie Hunnan, are more distinctive characters.

One thing that is distinctive about the gang is the homoeroticism: these outlaws seem to become very close indeed, which is not beyond plausibility, though we don't see anything too explicit.

Some of the fictionalising seems pointless. At one point Ned gathers a larger ring of supporters, only to have them flee at Glenrowan. And having the story related as a prison-cell letter to his (non-existent, historically) son also seems to serve no purpose.

The production design and art and set direction evoke the period convincingly, making some of the flourishes all the more disconcerting, and the dark cinematography and discordant music suit the tone.

While this isn't a Ned Kelly film for traditionalists, and it doesn't quite come together, if you're interested in a new, unglamorous take, it might be worth a look.

This story This is not the Ned Kelly we know first appeared on The Canberra Times.