“Nothing you’re about to see is true.”
That onscreen warning, which appears at the beginning of the new film about notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, signals that the movie’s title, True History of the Kelly Gang, should be taken with a grain of salt. Executed in November 1880 at the ripe old age of 25, Kelly has become more myth than man, serving as the inspiration for songs, musicals and movies. (Reportedly, 1907’s The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature-length narrative film ever made.) Anyone going to True History of the Kelly Gang (available tomorrow on-demand) seeking historical accuracy will be disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for a very modern Ned Kelly — a reluctant thief who wasn’t hung up on restrictive ideas about masculinity and exuded an electric homoeroticism — then this stylish, somewhat overblown pseudo-biopic may be your jam.
Less an action-crime thriller and more of an idiosyncratic origin-story-cum-Western, the new film from director Justin Kurzel is, like his 2015 adaptation of Macbeth, long on visual flourishes, barren landscapes and gnarly attitude. For much of True History, we spend time with a young Ned, played by Orlando Schwerdt, observing how this boy became the infamous outlaw. Living out in the wilderness with his siblings and prostitute mother Ellen (Essie Davis), Ned knows little happiness. The Kellys are Irish immigrants ruled by the English in these formidable badlands, and in order to survive, Ellen sells off her son to Harry (Russell Crowe), a bushranger who aims to bring him into the business. But once the frightened lad refuses to shoot O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a sergeant and one of his mother’s frequent customers, it’s clear that Ned wasn’t born to be a criminal.
As we’ll see, there’s something sensitive and soulful within this caged animal, even though he ultimately becomes an outlaw. If there’s such a thing as a beta-male bandit, it’s Ned.
How much of that is the actual story, though, is up for debate. Kurzel’s film is based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, which took sufficient liberties with the Ned Kelly story. (Like the movie, the book is narrated by Ned, who tells his version of events.) No Kelly scholar, I accepted True History as a fanciful riff — Kurzel’s idea of Ned Kelly as suggested by Carey’s book — and as such it fits alongside other revisionist dramas like I’m Not There or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which use real people as a springboard to explore specific themes, whether or not those real people necessarily embodied those ideas.
With that in mind, what’s best about True History is how it subverts the outlaw fantasy we associate with gunslingers of ye olden times. The desperados in American Westerns are usually portrayed as rugged, virile individuals — rarely are they wearing dresses or hanging out with naked men. But that’s the case with True History’s Ned Kelly, who is played as an adult by George MacKay. In previous Kelly biopics, the bushranger has been portrayed by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger — in other words, a rock star and a movie star. MacKay doesn’t look like a killer — as demonstrated in 1917, there’s a sweetness and empathy to his face that make him seem boyish and open — and Kurzel utilizes those qualities to give us a Ned Kelly who is noticeably anti-macho.
Even when he’s in the boxing ring, with blood flying, sensuality is as prominent as brutality in the man. Kurzel often films him shirtless, lingering on MacKay’s wiry body. Soon, Ned befriends Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), an English constable attracted to his beautiful, feminine features. But Ned’s sexuality is left unspecified — he’s enormously affectionate toward his mother and his male cohorts, and he has no problem sitting close to a nude Fitzpatrick, who’s subtly trying to seduce him. (Ned eventually takes a lover, played by Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie, but their affair hardly seems romantic or fulfilling.)
Growing increasingly tired of English oppression, Ned will finally take up arms, becoming the leader of likeminded malcontents who turn to murder and thievery. But the Kelly Gang decides to do something radical, wearing dresses during their attacks. (“If you wear a frock to a fight, they think you’re crazy,” one gang member advises his compatriots. “And nothing scares a man like crazy.”) And so we get fight sequences in which Ned’s unruly gang happily do their dirty deeds in elegant gowns. (“It’s about an emotional sense rather than a physical sense of armor, which becomes a fascinating dichotomy,” the film’s costume designer Alice Babidge recently said of the outlaws’ outfits.) And although those sequences are often rivetingly staged — Kurzel incorporates strobe lights during one stunning shootout — they only happen near the end of True History.
More generally, the gun battles and manly-man action is kept on the periphery. It’s almost as if Kurzel wants us to reconsider Ned Kelly — and the machismo of Westerns in general.
Kurzel, who’s Australian, has said as much, commenting earlier this year on the reaction in his homeland to his provocative rewrite of Kelly’s myth: “When it played in Australia, there were people calling it ‘the gay Ned Kelly,’ and I never made that film. I wanted their sexuality to be lucid. What I find interesting about Australian masculinity is that there will be a bunch of guys all playing football and drinking beer on a Saturday, then a couple of days later they’ll do Mad Monday where they put on dresses and all roll around with one another. It’s full of machismo and alpha male, but then you will also get a lot of Australian men dress in drag. There’s something fascinating about that.”
Overall, True History is only a moderate success. Despite its ambitions and flair, the movie often feels like it’s restlessly trying to reinvent everything — not just the ingrained masculinity in this kind of story, but also myriad narrative conventions and even basic audience empathy. (To pump up the willful combativeness, True History also boasts a raucous, anachronistic punk-rock score.) Its style is bold — the Australian badlands look like they were filmed on a desolate planet in another solar system — but the frenetic experimentation and swagger don’t necessarily add up to much. When it comes to telling a compelling story, Kurzel often lets the atmosphere overwhelm the plotting.
But I can’t say I minded too much. The kick of a movie like True History of the Kelly Gang is that it shakes up your preconceived notions. MacKay plays Ned as a desperate kid who doesn’t know he’s going to be enshrined in legend — an enduring, commodified symbol of rebellion — and so the character’s raw innocence and unashamed sexuality are all the more touching.
Of course, maybe Kurzel and Carey made all that up. Either way, 140 years since his hanging, Ned Kelly still has the power to cause a little trouble.