“Nothing scares a man like crazy”, a boy says to his infamous bandit brother, with a gently psychotic grin.
This is a line from True Story Of The Kelly Gang, a savage, semi-fictitious retelling of the Ned Kelly saga that features (in no particular order): violent blokes in dainty frocks slaughtering people, a gun-toting 10-year-old taking aim at a dick tied in a tourniquet, and a Shetland pony wandering around brothels packed to the rafters with naked clientele. It might be a brief moment in a two-hour biopic that many others have tried their hand at before, but it pin-points exactly where its predecessors have gone wrong: the legendary Australian outlaw’s fucked-up psyche is the most interesting thing about him.
And so, that psyche becomes the focal point of director Justin Kurzel’s far superior version of events: no tousle-haired beau on horseback or starry-eyed love affair. Just grit and guts lashed across the lens.
Kurzel has toed the line between accessible and arthouse in the past with a questionable level of success. He has the ability to stir awe-inspiring and fresh symbolism from familiar tales – his 2015 version of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender, perhaps the strongest example – but when he was enlisted to transform the popular video game Assassin’s Creed into a gargantuan action blockbuster a year later, much of his lustre was lost. It was a ham-fisted and glossy cash cow to some, and so he backed out of the spotlight to reconfigure. With Kelly Gang, he returns with something biting and brilliant.
It’s thanks, in part, to the firepower of his cracking ensemble. The film starts in Ned’s childhood, and gathers a coterie of fine actors to set the scene. For its first act, captivating newcomer Orlando Schwertz takes the lead as Young Ned. Torn apart by the death of his lowly father at a young age, he relies on the unreliable guidance of the family matriarch Ellen, played by The Babadook‘s Essie Davis, to find his way in life. But the lone wolf mentality, paired with his mother’s desperate desire to see him do something good with his life, sells him to the notorious bushranger Harry Power (played by a bearded and bulky Russell Crowe), who takes him under his wing. But taming him is near impossible, and before long he’s on the run, carving his initials into the dusty Australian outback as he goes.
It’s at this point that the film’s slightly pedestrian scene-setting goes rogue. To a punky score, we meet the older Ned, played by a career best George Mackay, as he contorts his body into ape-like shapes and participates in a human cock fight, cheered on by posh revellers who get the blood of his opponent on their Sunday best. He’s bearing his teeth, showing his bony backside, hair matted and rattish – every bit the anarchist. The ‘c’ word flies out of his mouth on more than a dozen occasions.
Kurzel’s frequent screenwriting collaborator Shaun Grant (who’s also penned an episode of the new season of Manhunter) expertly weaves Peter Carey’s novel of the same name into a gripping narrative that works best when it’s hitting its harshest blows. It is, at its heart, a family drama with a macabre and comical core, but when it moves into sentimental territory – say, emotional conversations between Ned and his mother – it can feel a little contrived. Nevertheless, the effective overdose of machismo it delivers trumps its minor flaws. True Story Of The Kelly Gang is its director’s gutsy and relentless return to form.
True History of the Kelly Gang had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas later this year.