Synopsis: An exploration of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang as they attempt to evade authorities during the 1870s.
Stars: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe
Director: Justin Kurzel
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Over the past years writing reviews for this blog, it’s been well-documented that I don’t always keep up with my history lessons but I have a feeling I could be forgiven for not being as up to date as I could be on the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Though he’s a divisive figure in his native land, a folk hero to some and a murderous villain to others, he’s not as well-known here, only making his mark in various forms of media over the last century. Though 2003’s Ned Kelly starred the late Heath Ledger as the titular character and featured Orlando Bloom as his right-hand man Joseph Byrne, it didn’t connect with audiences and wouldn’t rank high on either actor’s roster of credits.
While many historical records are available to put together a fairly accurate account of Kelly’s life starting in the rugged outback until his death at the end of a hangman’s noose before he turned 30, director Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) takes a different, more controversial approach to his telling. Working with screenwriter Shaun Grant, he’s adapted Peter Carey’s celebrated 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang which is largely (and proudly) a work of make-believe that mostly follows Kelly’s life but takes certain liberties along the way. The novel created a ruckus from Kelly naysayers who were dismayed another work glorifying his crimes became so popular and enticed others open to the history books being cleverly reworked.
The resulting film Kurzel has made from this work is having the same effect and that almost instantly makes it something to seek out so you can decide for yourself. Here is a bold movie that shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything Kelly related, especially because it says from the beginning that none of what audiences are about to see is true. Instead, it invites the viewer to ponder how the story could unfold if the man himself were sitting in front of you telling it. What would he leave out? What would he embellish?
Life for the Kelly clan was rough in the barren outback of the 1860’s. After his father is sent to a dredge of a prison, his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) establishes herself as a bootlegger willing to do anything to keep her family with food on the table. Eventually, she goes so far as selling off her eldest son Ned (played as a youngster by Orlando Schwerdt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, Boy Erased) in the hopes he could learn his thieving ways. Horrified both by his mother’s betrayal and Power’s wicked bloodlust, Ned returns briefly before entering jail himself. As an adult, the brash Ned (George MacKay, How I Live Now) runs with a smaller crowd that includes Joe (Sean Keenan), doing what they can to stay away from the long arm of the law.
When Ned is introduced to Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), a friendship that might have helped him turn his life around winds up sending him in the other direction when both men show they are unable to fully divest themselves from their convictions and their past. This sets the stage for the film’s final act, sending Ned on the run with his “Kelly Gang” that leaves a trail of violence and bloody bodies in their wake. When Ellen is jailed and Ned decides to stage a grand scale escape for his mother, it gives way to a final confrontation between the Kellys and the policemen that becomes the stuff of legend.
Plenty of movies about history have been given a modern edge with a little rock and roll twist but Kurzel finds a viscerally pleasing way of juxtaposing the luxe with the rough. At times, the costuming and music give the feel of a movie taking place a century or more later, yet the movie never feels like it’s pawing at a theme it can’t follow through on. As he’s shown in previous films, Kurzel has an eye for scale and he gives viewers some excellent scans of the burnt out landscape the Kellys call home as well as the more tony living of the upper crust. Though the technique starts to overwhelm the film near the end, with the final confrontation become a bit of a headache inducing mess – the lead-up to it is pretty invigorating and chilling. Kurzel also isn’t shy about showing copious amounts of violence, there’s enough blood and guts tossed about in the movie for several horror films yet it somehow still felt like it was authentic to the story being told. Were the director to pump the brakes in these moments, it would feel like he was cheating so in that sense I appreciated he didn’t spare us these stomach churning sequences.
Where the movie truly excels are the performances. Nearly landing an Oscar nomination for his work in 1917, MacKay follows it up with a commanding performance as Kelly that hits all the right notes. He gives the character a humanity, yet doesn’t make him sympathetic at the same time. That’s a hard line to draw because where folk heroes are concerned there is a tendency to try to overly humanize them just to make them likable…MacKay nicely walks the thin tightrope by just making him human. The showstopper is Davis as his scheming mother, though. In a truly remarkable performance, Davis (who is married to Kurzel) makes Ellen so resolutely devoted to her family that she’s willing to destroy everything else that gets in their way…even if it means sacrificing her other children. This is the stuff Oscar nominations were made for. Crowe and Hoult are strong, too, as are Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) as a love interest for Ned the author has created for effect, and Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), as the first lawman Ned has to face head on.
Not going to lie, this is a tough blister of a movie but it’s worth your time if you are into these visually arresting skewed history lessons. The performances are first rate and the production design seemed to always be keeping me on my toes. It’s unpredictable in a way that historical dramas just aren’t crafted to be – and how fun is that?