Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) and adapted by Shaun Grant (Berlin Syndrome) from the novel by Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang is an entertaining and stylish fictionalized biography of the eponymous Australian outlaw. Because of the unique vision that Kurzel brings to the film, this is a truly epic Western different from anything else that can be seen today.
The movie tells the story of Ned Kelly who, after suffering in his childhood at the hands of British colonializers, discovers that he is descended from a line of warriors, inspiring him to go on a quest of revenge against his oppressors. While the arc itself is a relatively common Western arc, the revisionist way in which it is told makes it feel endlessly refreshing.
Part of what makes the film so intriguing is that Grant and Kurzel fully embrace the unreliable narrator element of the story. Because Kelly went beyond being a person in history to becoming a part of Australian folklore, the movie isn’t just a straightforward biopic, but rather, a cinematic and action-packed recollection of legend.
Grant explores the idea of legacy in the film, both in terms of Kelly’s desire to become a legend and in the way in which it addresses his ancestry and his need to live up to the precedent set by his bloodline. Although it doesn’t go much beyond the surface, the movie’s commentary on the nature versus nurture debate is certainly very interesting.
The character development in the film is definitely very interesting. Like much of Kurzel’s work, the protagonist isn’t a hero in the traditional sense, but he is still very compelling nevertheless. Even when it is difficult to get behind some of his more extreme actions, his motivations are emotionally resonant and interesting.
George MacKay is wonderful in his lead role, delivering a more emotional performance than he ever has in the past. He seems perfectly cast as the charming loose cannon of a protagonist. The supporting cast is also stacked with gifted performers, including Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, and Nicholas Hoult, all of whom give memorable side turns.
On a technical level, the film is certainly very strong thanks to Kurzel’s vision. The visual style of the movie is undeniable, particularly in the action sequences, which have an infectious amount of energy. Yet even though the film is unabashedly daring in its execution, it also ends up having a lot of mainstream appeal because of how outright entertaining it is.
True History of the Kelly Gang is certainly Justin Kurzel’s best movie yet. It’s a bit disappointing that this probably won’t get the awards push it deserves since it is being released in the midst of the shutdown of theaters, but hopefully this gives the film the opportunity to be discovered by audiences that may not have otherwise given it a chance.
True History of the Kelly Gang hits VOD on April 24.