“True History of the Kelly Gang,” based on the novel by Australian writer Peter Carey, isn’t for people searching for a historically accurate biography about the legendary antihero Ned Kelly. This film has an unusual fantasy element that feels almost larger than life, which is most fitting for a grandiose tale of the Aussie outlaw. Myths and legends dance between facts, and the sweeping story feels like an overcomplicated novel-to-screen adaptation.
Set in the 1870s, the film starts its tale with Ned’s (George MacKay) childhood and ends with his death in his early twenties. Director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant choose to focus the majority of their story on Ned’s relationship with his mother (Essie Davis), hoping to explore why the boy grew up into a violent gang leader and cop killer.
The first portion of the film is the most interesting and cohesive, with a harsh family dynamic. The last half is the most exciting (and bloodiest), with Ned leading a gang of men known as the Sons of Sieve on a retreat from the authorities that ends in a deadly clash. This period film feels a lot like a classic Western in its narrative structure, and the story is good but not great.
Those (like me) who haven’t read source material may feel at a slight disadvantage here. The movie relies too much on shorthand storytelling in some parts, and there’s often not enough context for viewers who don’t know the source material well to follow what exactly has transpired. It’s not hard to keep up, but the story trips on more than a handful of plot holes.
Kurzel has a good eye for visual flair, especially when he chooses to shoot several scenes with showy strobe lighting. It’s an effective and stunning method of adding texture to the scenes (especially during the big shootout finale), but is overused in the earlier parts of the film. It’s as annoying as it is headache-inducing.
The most disappointing thing about “True History of Kelly Gang” is that the film doesn’t fully explain why these men are great folk heroes to many Australian people. Kelly is a divisive historical figure, and this version of his story sheds little light on the factual accounts of his life.