In director Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (available on VOD as of Friday, Apr. 24) George MacKay’s Ned Kelly isn’t so much like Heath Ledger or Mick Jagger’s version of the famed Australian bushranger, outlaw and gang leader, he comes across more like the real-life Jagger himself. This is a revisionist rock n’ roll rendition of Peter Carey’s fictitious, Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name – it’s anachronistic as all get out, decidedly queer and has a lot more sizzle than steak.
John “Red” Kelly (Ben Corbett), is an Irish immigrant living in northeast Victoria. He is a Son of Sieve (this is an invention of Carey’s and never fully elaborated upon in the film), which essentially means he enjoys crossdressing and riding horses as a form of rebellion. Red’s of little use to his family as when he’s not gallivanting about in women’s garments, he’s drunk as a skunk. It’s therefore the responsibility of Ellen (Essie Davis of “The Babadook”) to bring home the bacon … she does so selling her hooch (distilled) and her hooch (God-given).
Twelve-year-old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt, sportin’ a bitchin’ quarantine haircut) is the man of the house, Ellen says as much every chance she gets in an effort to shame Red. Ned slaughters someone else’s cow in order to feed his family. This draws the attention of Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), a john of Ellen’s with designs on being more. He arrests Red, who takes the fall for Ned. Red dies while imprisoned, which opens to door to prospective suitors O’Neil and Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Ellen sells Ned to Harry in hopes that he’ll make a man out of her boy. Harry talks a big game and writes a bigger one (he’s chronicling his exploits), but he’s really just a low-down criminal. Ned’s arrested after shooting O’Neil in the leg at Harry’s prompting.
Ned doesn’t return to his family until he’s fully grown having done stints in prison and as a bare-knuckle boxer. It’s at home that Ned meets Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and the two strike up a tenuous friendship. Fitzpatrick is even kind enough to buy Ned a night with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie of “Jojo Rabbit”), a working girl with whom he falls in love.
MacKay is good, much like he was in “1917.” He didn’t wow me in either outing, but he’s building a reputation of reliability. Perhaps I’m distracted by his resemblance to my buddy, Evil? Davis plays mania like a champ as evidenced here and in “The Babadook.” (There are truly icky moments of implied incest between Davis’ character and the characters of both Schwerdt and MacKay.) Hunnam oozes smarm as a British oppressor as does Hoult, an actor who’s generally very likable but has proven to be fun playing fuckheads – see “The Favourite” for further evidence. (If you’ve ever wanted to see Hoult do his best Louis C.K. impression – this is the movie for you!) McKenzie does a nice job, but I was kind of uncomfortable with her doing nudity. I had to Google how old she was to make sure no laws were being broken. Crowe is great in a limited role. With his increased girth, he kinda comes across like a demented Santa Claus. He’s the criminal spirit whose essence haunts the remainder of the movie.
This is the first film of Kurzel’s I’ve seen. He’s best known for directing the Australian serial killer flick “Snowtown” and the Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard one-two punch of “Macbeth” and “Assassin’s Creed” (Everything from Shakespeare to Playstation or the Bard to Xbox!). If “True History of the Kelly Gang” is any indication, Kurzel is an immensely stylistic filmmaker who makes the enterprise a family affair – Davis is his wife and the picture is scored by his younger brother, Jed. Kurzel employs some truly innovative and immersive techniques when showing his anti-hero manning a rifle or mounting a horse. This isn’t a film for the photosensitive as strobes are a second language to Kurzel. Vagueness is a third language to Kurzel – he seems more preoccupied with pomp as opposed to circumstance.