Starring: George MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Running Time: 124 mins
True History Of The Kelly Gang is an Australian/British film about the story of bushranger Ned Kelly, and his battle with the colonial authorities in 19th Century Australia.
This is certainly an engaging and often strikingly gritty film, but it really doesn’t hit home on the intense, gripping and thought-provoking level it aims to. As a story of outlaws fighting brutal authorities, it has some great moments, but the film struggles to bring its themes of folklore, history and misremembrance home in equally captivating fashion.
First things first, however, we have to talk about the film’s cast, which is by far its strongest suit. Jam-packed with stars at every moment, it’s an incredible display of both young and established talent, with the likes of George MacKay, Thomasin McKenzie, Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult starring alongside screen legends Russell Crowe and Essie Davis.
And the film isn’t just a collection of stars for the sake of it, as each performance is better than the last. MacKay is without a doubt the film’s most intense presence, bringing a sense of grit and almost insanity to the table where the screenplay struggles to do so. In smaller roles, Thomasin McKenzie and Russell Crowe leave a lasting impression, while Essie Davis is outstanding as a battle-hardened yet ever-loving mother figure.
In that, there are a lot of stories going on at the same time, but because of the fantastic performances, each and every character is as captivating as the next, carving out their own striking identity alongside the film’s core narrative.
That central story, however, isn’t always as effective as it aims to be. Starting off a little slowly, the story does come good in its second act (although a striking performance by young Orlando Schwerdt is fantastic from the start).
The problem with the screenplay is that it struggles to really double down on one core conflict or emotional theme throughout. Its final act is better, pitting the Kelly gang against the colonial authorities, but the previous two acts find themselves muddled between an attack on the colonialists alongside an often unconvincing portrayal of Ned Kelly’s moral values.
As a result, you find yourself unsure about who’s really on what side for the majority of the film. And that’s not because of deliberate mystery, but rather unclear characterisation and a messy thematic focus throughout.
And with that, a lot of the story really loses its strong emotional resonance. The performances bring some dramatic depth back (above all Essie Davis), but the film’s gritty intensity is never matched by real emotional intensity, leaving it as a sparingly engaging but never enthralling watch.
What’s even more frustrating is the film’s attempts to bring in thought-provoking and challenging themes about folklore and how we tell our history in the modern day.
The movie starts off with a seemingly contrasting title card that puts the truth of the story here in doubt, and then finishes with what almost seems like a call to arms to be more truthful in recounting history and folklore.
The title, too, hints at the film’s desire to tell a true story, but that theme is almost invisible for the entire duration, with the exception of its opening and closing scene.
So, while it’s certainly an interesting idea that would prove thoroughly thought-provoking if executed better, the film’s brief mentions of the theme feel forced, unconvincing and at worst irrelevant in the context of this two-hour story, which was a real shame to see.
Overall, I found True History Of The Kelly Gang a bit of a mixed bag. It’s an engaging watch, and with a collection of excellent performances, has a degree of intrigue and striking drama throughout.
However, it lacks the emotional intensity needed to make it fully enthralling, while it misses the mark on some of its more unique and interesting themes, ultimately proving a fairly messy and ineffective foray into folklore. And that’s why I’m giving it a 7.1.