I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I doubt that anyone outside Australia can truly appreciate how large Ned Kelly looms, for better or for worse, in that nation’s psyche and mythology. I certainly can’t. Probably anyone non-Australian who is aware of the 19th-century outlaw-slash–folk hero comes by that knowledge via the eponymous 2003 film starring Heath Ledger. So does another retelling of the Kelly tale have anything to say to those of us who are unfamiliar with the legend?
It certainly does, in the hands of director Justin Kurzel, one of the most interesting filmmakers to come out Australia in the past decade. He made an extraordinary feature debut in 2011 with another based-on-fact drama, Snowtown (titled The Snowtown Murders outside Australia), about a teen raised among neglect and abuse that is emotional and economic, who is ripe for grooming into murder by the only father figure he has ever known. True History of the Kelly Gang is in many ways much the same story, with an additional dollop of raging at patriarchy and colonialism.
Despite the title — which the film shares with the acclaimed and multi-award-winning 2000 novel by Peter Carey from which it is taken — this is a fictionalized version of Kelly’s life, told in his own voice, a voice that is imagined yet partly drawn from the real Kelly’s writings. “Nothing you’re about to see is true,” the film informs us as it opens, which isn’t quite the case, however: the broad scope of what we see is factual, from Kelly’s hardscrabble childhood as the son of an Irish criminal transported to Australia to Kelly’s own run-ins with the law, including his gang’s notorious final shootout with police during which he wore “bulletproof” armor inspired by an American Civil War ironclad steamship.
“Fictional” may be too strong a word to describe what Kurzel gives us here: “revisionist” is more like it, and it is a much-needed revisionism, one that swings away from worn-out notions of the natural rightness of “authority” and of cultural exploitation as progress. Which isn’t to say that True History particularly excuses Kelly’s crimes, which include murder. This is a film sympathetic to Kelly in how it frames his life, but mostly by way of explaining how he became the man he was, by depicting the dark forces that shaped him.
Those dark forces? The English oppression that was crushing the Irish in Australia just as it did back home, just “like you did to the black fella [the Aboriginal Australians] before us,” as Ned’s mother, Ellen (the indispensable Essie Davis: Mindhorn, The Babadook) snarls at a policeman. The poverty Irish families like Ned’s were forced to scratch a living out of. The warped, contradictory ideas about women’s place in the world, as either whores or wives, and about men’s place as dispatchers of dominance. Ned’s father (Ben Corbett) is a drunk and emotionally absent, at best, and the first seemingly decent man whom tween Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) can look up to, and from whom he receives what appears to be positive attention, even affection, is the one who quickly forces the boy into a life of crime and violence: “bushranger” Harry Power (Russell Crowe [The Nice Guys, Fathers & Daughters], in a powerhouse performance of coiled wrath).
By the time Ned has grown to adulthood — portrayed by George MacKay (Pride, Defiance), physically transformed into a hard shell since his appearance as a Great War soldier in 1917 — he has seen the literal powers that be, in the form of the militarized police, as figures of tyranny and persecution, not of justice. (Charlie Hunnam [The Gentlemen, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword] and Nicholas Hoult [X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Tolkien] as the two most central police-soldiers here ensure we understand that what counts as “civilization” here never doesn’t feature submission achieved via brutality.)
All of this rage? It bursts from True Story with a punk ethos — via a soundtrack by turns electric and galvanizingly vulgar — punctuated by moments of shocking violence that isn’t always bloody but often representative of resentment finally coming to a boil. This is an angry film, often unpleasant, one that leaves plenty of room for the viewer to interpret Kelly’s actions along the spectrum from intolerably criminal to righteously revolutionary (if also spectacularly failing at the latter). But it is unquestionably a condemning portrait of a people and a land formed by cruelty and hatred, one in which there are no heroes and no triumphs. And it is not Australia’s story alone.