Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is one of those historical figures whose life story transferred into the mythical almost immediately upon his death in 1880. The exploits of Kelly and his henchmen have been used as the basis for multiple films, including starring turns by both Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger.
Now joining that list is True History of the Kelly Gang, based on the book of the same name, which makes no bones about how it is a fictionalized story based on Kelly’s life. Starring George MacKay as Kelly, the film almost goes the full cradle-to-grave approach.
It details Kelly’s rough childhood with mom Ellen (Essie Davis); his time with a two-bit criminal Harry Power (Russell Crowe); continuous taunting by local policeman Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam); and eventually the forming of his own gang to oppose another law enforcement figure, Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult).
Written by Shaun Grant and directed by Justin Kurzel, the film revels in Kelly’s lurid story. Living in a shack in a desolate area of Australia, he and his family have nothing and their desperation gives him no opportunity to actually be a child. Those circumstances essentially dictate the rest of his life, as even when he tries to be good, his hand is forced by certain situations in which he finds himself.
The filmmakers take their time with each section, but somewhere in the second hour, they lose the thread of what they’re trying to say. They bounce around from scene to scene, taking shortcuts in an attempt to force connections that don’t organically form.
The biggest thing they never accomplish is building up the notoriety of Kelly and his gang. In fact, apart from one seemingly random murderous spree, the gang is never seen doing anything at all. The filmmakers spend tons of time trying to tell the audience exactly what kind of person Kelly was, and almost no time in showing why he was so feared.
A huge deal is made of the dresses that some of the henchmen wear during their crimes, and possible romantic feelings between Kelly and a male friend are hinted at several times. However, it’s unclear if the filmmakers are trying to make some larger point about gender identity and sexuality, or if these things are merely another way to show how wild the gang was.
MacKay is given free rein to go as over-the-top as he wanted, a technique that is almost diametrically opposed from his acclaimed role in 1917. His performance works at certain points, but it goes off the rails in the final act. Crowe and Hunnam do good work in limited roles, and Hoult is ideally cast in his smarmy role.
True History of the Kelly Gang was not limited by anything that happened in real life, but perhaps it needed some limitations to create a bit more clarity. The dreary mood of the film is set early on, and it never finds its way to any excitement or suspense.
True History of the Kelly Gang is available on April 24 via digital streaming and cable platforms.