True History of the Kelly Gang, Admirable and Aggravating

The legend of Ned Kelly, Australia’s Jesse James, gets a grimy, admirable retelling by director Justin Kurzel, a once-hot filmmaker looking to make a comeback after a debacle called Assassin’s Creed. He succeeds, in part, due to stark and lucid cinematography, filled with fiery shadows, foggy sunsets, and glistening machismo. The Australian outback certainly helps. Also helping is a thorough bench of character actors, all giving the film their all in rendering the violent western as believable as possible and a story worth telling again.

As the titular outlaw, a gaunt George McKay (1917) is the spitting image of ill-tempered obstinance, a boy whose gentler nature is corrupted by a terrible mother (Essie Davis) and even more terribly poor circumstances. As he grows older, and returns home to more of the same that he endured as a child, he also grows more encumbered by the toxic spell of his kin. His brother is a bandit and his mother remains an erratic presence, a woman for whom honor and bravery is shooting another man in cold blood if the man has so much as mildly disrespected their family. She’s an Irish wench and everything that entails, and she’s played with maddening gusto by Davis (The Babadook). Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin Mackenzie, Russell Crowe, and Charlie Hunnam fill out the impressive supporting cast, with Hoult standing out as a dandy of a constable. He pretends to be a friend to the Kelly family, possibly even wants to be a friend to them, but is continually pushed to the point of villainy. He becomes what they always thought of him: yet another English invader with designs on exploiting and imprisoning them, and primarily through virtue of their own boorish behavior.

While narrative or technical flaws are few and far between, the film grated on me at times. Characters’ decisions and actions, while intentionally irrational, are so aggravating to an audience they stretch credulity anyway. Kelly Gang is a film made to admire if not enjoy, even on intellectual grounds. By the end, when a war has broken between coppers and robbers and all is lost for Kelly himself, his name endures as that of an eternal adolescent whose fate was forged by poverty and, most of all, a pretty awful family unit. He’s not a mythic hero. He’s only a boy masquerading as a man.

Grade: B

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