George MacKay, the pale, young man who bolted his way through last month’s 1917 like a frightened rabbit, takes on a different form in True History of the Kelly Gang. Here, he appears as a demon rising out of colonial Australia’s bloodied, butcherly nightmares. Often shirtless, with his hair cropped short, he’s a knot of bone and muscle. His eyes bulge out. His looks are increasingly manic. He’s in the role of Ned Kelly, Australia’s most notorious outlaw: a folk hero to some and a murderous crook to others. The son of an Irish convict, he was born in 1854 under the boot of British imperialism. But Kelly lashed out against his oppressors, killing police and raiding local towns alongside his gang of malcontents.
Director Justin Kurzel, after an unsatisfying dip into mainstream filmmaking with 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, here returns to what he does best: sparse, violent and hallucinatory visions of mankind’s unchecked rage. True History of the Kelly Gang is close kin to his 2015 version of Macbeth, with both taking loose and impressionistic approaches to well-trodden stories. You’d be hard-pressed to find an Australian who doesn’t have their own vision of Kelly, whether it’s Mick Jagger’s pouty and silly incarnation from 1970, or the dashing one Heath Ledger played in 2003. Kurzel has taken a noticeably different route, adapting Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel from 2000, known for its fanciful and deliberately ahistorical stance on the outlaw’s life.
Kurzel’s film isn’t here to sanctify the Kelly myth, but to imagine what might craft the man behind it. It’s split into three chapters, to mark the slow shedding of his humanity: “Boy”, “Man”, and “Monitor” – the latter a term for a kind of fortified warship, as a nod to the real Kelly’s famous suit of bulletproof armour. As a child (Orlando Schwerdt), he’s both nurtured and poisoned by his mother (Essie Davis) and her deep well of resentment, directed not only at her ineffectual husband, but at any man that might cross her threshold. Ned is made to feel ashamed of his father’s secret cross-dressing. His psyche takes a further beating when his mother sells him off to Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who introduces him to the criminal lifestyle.
Once MacKay steps in to play the older Kelly, he’s gone full 1870s punk rock (there are several tracks in the film performed by the actor and his castmates, who formed a band as part of preproduction). Yet his rebellion is a reluctant one. He’s hesitant to enact revenge against the sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) who exploited his mother for sex and is easily seduced – in more ways than one – into the louche and elegant world of Constable Fitzpatrick (a career-best Nicholas Hoult).
It’s as if Kelly just can’t shake the hope that there’s a way to discard his Irish bloodline and integrate within the ruling class. It’s screenwriter Shaun Grant’s nod to the complex position of white convicts in colonial Australia, explored with equal nuance in last year’s The Nightingale. But when Kelly and his gang don their delicate lace dresses (a fictional invention), it’s the defiant mark of a man who’s come to embrace both his past and the destiny laid out before him. And as the inevitable, deathly end to his story arrives, a profound sense of tragedy hangs in the air. Kelly never had a chance.