The True History of the Kelly Gang

History is written by the victors, and truth is dependent on the point of view, so how to approach events over a hundred years past and distorted by folk tales and the exaggerations of those who would have built their own reputations upon the grim tale of the disreputable Edward “Ned” Kelly, born December 1854 and executed age a month before his twenty-fifth birthday for murder, assault, theft and armed robbery?

Based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, itself acknowledged as a work of fiction though inspired by real events, a winner of the Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Justin Kurzel’s film of the same name as adapted by Shaun Grant has a tale to tell but similarly admits it may be at variance with a stricter interpretation of “truth.”

The fourth feature from director Kurzel, The True History of the Kelly Gang returns to his homeland and the biographical crime drama of his debut Snowtown but there is also much of his interpretation of Macbeth in it, unforgiving, unremitting, built around both the ensemble performance and the land in which it is set, in many ways fitting within the genre of the western but without any of the connotations of romanticism.

From a corrugated iron shack in Avenel, Victoria, northeast of Melbourne, Ned Kelly grows up witness to the harshness of life in a wasteland of dust studded with dead trees, the child of Irish immigrants, his father a transported criminal, his mother Ellen (The Babadook‘s Essie Davis) a common whore but possessed of a fierce conviction that her children should do survive tempered with the unswerving belief that they should remain true to their roots.

Following the death of his father while imprisoned for a crime which Ned committed in order that the family should eat, he is “apprenticed” to the bushranger Harry Power (Man of Steel’s Russell Crowe) whose true calling is murder and theft, and he grows older Ned is repeatedly disabused of the notion that the law represents anybody but the rich by his encounters with Sergeant O’Neill and Constable Fitzpatrick (Pacific Rim‘s Charlie Hunnam and Fury Road‘s Nicholas Hoult).

Initially played with disenfranchised rage by Orlando Schwerdt, The Secret of Marrowbone‘s George MacKay gives the older Ned Kelly a terrifying focus and purpose, thwarted in his attempts to do the right thing and not follow the path of those around him but always brought back by circumstance to the destiny that was always going to be.

The boy who had nothing who would rather run than kill who becomes the man who has no choice if he is to survive, if Ned Kelly was a monster it was because he took all the parts of the world around him into his being, building around him a bloody bulletproof army whose savagery is more honest than the pretty lies of the civilised society which sets the dogs upon them.

Previewed at the Glasgow Film Festival with George MacKay attending to introduce the screening, The True History of the Kelly Gang is the confrontational epitome of Australian cinema, both physically and emotionally exhausting to behold yet impossible to look away from even in its most disturbing moments and never less than visually arresting in the landscapes and brothels, betrayals and bloody shootouts which punctuate its two hours.

The True History of the Kelly Gang is currently on general release

The Glasgow Film Festival continues until Sunday 8th March



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