Released: 26th January
Seen: 26th January
True History of the Kelly Gang is a lie. It’s a work of fiction based upon the novel of the same name written by Peter Carey. The original novel pretends to be a journal written by the real Ned Kelly but is a highly fictionalised version of the story. Claiming to be told by Kelly to his daughter, the book spins a yarn about one of Australia’s most infamous historical figures. Adapting it to a movie is certainly not something to be taken lightly, a story about a real figure that is full of lies meant to try and reveal a greater truth about the man is not easy to translate to film. Clearly, it’s not easy at all because the film doesn’t work as well as I wanted it to.
The film itself takes all of Ned Kelly’s story, from childhood until the moment of his hanging. Compressing the life of Ned Kelly (George MacKay) down to a few key events, from his teaching in the ways of manhood at the hands of Harry Power (Russell Crowe) to his multiple run-ins with Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), it slowly shows Ned going from a boy scared to shoot the cock off a police officer to a man who would gun down a battalion without a second thought. It does this mostly thanks to some terrific performances, not only by those already named but also by Essie Davis as Kelly’s mother and the rest of the cast who, while great, are outshone by those I have named. The cast of this film and the performances in it are not the issues, they are all great and I genuinely enjoyed every choice they made.
There is no love for Ned Kelly here, there probably shouldn’t be. The film actually admonishes the Australian people for turning a man like Ned Kelly into a figure worthy of praise. We spend the entire movie seeing that there’s nothing special about Ned, he’s an asshole who eventually learns how to fire a gun while wearing a long flowing dress. We aren’t meant to sympathise with him and the film never asks us to try. There’s no one here to sympathise with, everyone is some various shade of asshole and I’m here for that. I’m down with a film full of unlikeable people who are still charismatic just by their performances, that’s great. The problem is that they aren’t interesting enough.
For 2 hours of a film based on a fake biography, True History of the Kelly Gang almost plays everything too straight. There’s certainly glimpses of stylism and moments where just describing the imagery is enough to make your eyebrow go up (I now get to say I saw Nicholas Hoult sitting near naked on a recumbent lounge while wearing stockings and garters and having a casual conversation with a beardless Ned Kelly… that’s a thing that exists in my head now) but everything just looks and feels like they’re making a dead-serious biopic of Ned Kelly Considering this is a film where a bunch of outlaw bushmen put on dresses and ride around shooting cops who glow pure white during the night, it’s safe to say this is a film that needed to take itself less seriously. It’s almost a chore to sit through, only occasionally rewarded with some occasional fun moments like Russell Crowe’s “He’s a constable-cunt” song or the climactic final battle scene (which takes all of 15 minutes, and that includes Kelly’s time in prison and his eventual hanging) but for the most part we’re just watching a film that hints at its want to do something outside the box… and by ‘hints at’, I mean it flashed a light on and off.
Three separate scenes feature heavy strobing effects, including a large portion of the final battle scene where you probably need to watch what’s going on to properly understand how dire everything is. They have no purpose, no diegetic reason why the lights would go off like that. This is part of those glimpse of stylism I was talking about, they just grabbed a strobe light and aimed it at the bushland so everything could flicker in and out during three separate scenes. Each one of those strobing moments hurt a little more and it’s not even consistent. It’s not to symbolise anything or linked to any character or location or scenario, it’s just there because someone thought it would look cool. I honestly expected to make it to maybe March before I had a contender for my end of the year “This film tried to kill me” award (given previously to Rise of Skywalker) but here we are with me up on this high horse once again.
While the cast is brilliant, and several scenes are fairly nice to look at, True History of Kelly Gang is ultimately a letdown due to its slow trudging setup that made everything feel longer. Combine that with an unwillingness to do anything interesting (beyond trying to give the audience a seizure) and you have a film that’s more interesting than good. The film admits that it’s lying to you, but it refuses to make the lies surprising or entertaining or funny. It lies for no reason other than “Well, that’s what the source material did”. If you like any of the actors involved then sure, their performances are great and you’ll enjoy their scenes but the film itself is just a disappointment, even before I throw in my obligatory middle finger towards the film for the crime of strobes. Shame, I had high hopes for this one.