Before we see any action or character; this film claims through a short line of text that none of what we’ll see is true. The nature of what we’re to see and the conflicted views people still take on the legend of Ned Kelly are what give the perhaps less than biographical drama a tricky pulse which is hard to put your finger on.
Growing up in the bush with little to live on but plenty of grit in his belly is Ned Kelly; a child who learns to get through life the hard way. Later, as a grown adult (George MacKay) he grows tired of being downtrodden and fights back against the law, banding together a group of supporters which sees him step over a line he can’t double-back on.
Beautiful swirls of terror and mesmerising talent were evident in Justin Kurzel’s directorial spin on ‘Macbeth’ and they surge again in this telling of an Australian outlaw. It’s a film split into three parts and with Shaun Grant’s screenplay, Kurzel wonderfully encapsulates a growing pool of darkness. Every new chapter in Ned’s life is one that sees him further over the edge, making decisions that set him as the iconic name we now know of.
Saying that, there is a strong flaw that the film, even with its bells and whistles of acting splendour and brooding imagery, becomes one which could test the viewer’s patience. It goes on too long and I admittedly felt myself switching off from the events on show. The storytelling seems to be unsure of which side to present Ned on and in this back and forth of Robin Hood-like hero or murderous terror, you are likely to leave dissatisfied to any conclusions.
Gnarled trees with skeletal fingers feature heavily; as if their branches are pulling you into the dusty landscape of violent masculinity and even if you aren’t quite fully invested to the plight of Ned, the look of the movie is stunning. The Aussie backdrop feels like a twisted fairy tale; with nightmarish blood and brawn seeping into brothels, animal masks and playing literal dress up. There’s a strong sense of the world Ned resides within being off-kilter and this is elevated above and beyond through a climactic sequence; one that rattles the core in a visceral and barnstorming onslaught of unexpected imagery.
MacKay is on blistering form and if ‘1917’ didn’t prove his captivating skill then this undoubtedly will. There’s such intensity in his eyes; as if they are sunk back into his skull and he moves in an animalistic manner which is both impressive and disturbing. Essie Davis is a sensational force with fire and spirit, as a mother who resents how the police and British view their kind. She possesses fire and spirit, selling herself and her family to make ends meet. Nicholas Hoult sinks his teeth into a boo-worthy performance as a nasty Anglo-officer and reminds you that he deserves more roles, because the lad can act.
‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ certainly looks dramatic and rooted in the imposing visuals there are ferocious performances, but you can’t shake away the feeling that there’s a disconnect between the eponymous Ned Kelly and what the director and writer wish to portray. Their confusion on how to paint the man will leave you having to make up your own mind.
Written by Troy Balmayer
STAR RATING –★★★
Question: What is your favourite George MacKay film performance?
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