One of the strangest genre’s is Revisionist History. It’s hard enough adapting real history respectfully, but it’s even harder to see where the line is when you’re knowingly rewriting it. Sometimes the revisionism knowingly rewrites history entirely, like in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) and sometimes details are rewritten but passed off as truth, like in Braveheart (1995). Results definitely vary, but the first option usually leads to a better outcome. The rewritten history is used to make a thought-provocative point and the audience is okay with it because they know they are being taken for a ride. If the audience isn’t fully aware of the mindset needed when viewing a film, it can muddle the enjoyment. So it comes as no surprise that Justin Kurzel’s The True History Of The Kelly Gang (2020) is a rather perplexing artefact.
Based off Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, The True History Of The Kelly Gang is a fictionalised retelling of one of Australia’s most famous figures, Ned Kelly (played by George MacKay). The story begins with a young Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis) selling herself to cops and criminals alike in order to support her family. This leads to selling off Ned to be mentored by famed bushranger, Harry Power (Russell Crowe). The violence Ned is subjected to eventually shapes him into a battle-hardened outlaw and leader of his own gang. As expected, the gang takes the fight to the English law enforcement, including Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick. However, this version of The Kelly Gang appears to be part of a larger legacy, wherein their methods, tactics and purpose for existing are cult-like and inspired by some kind of heroic destiny.
Right off the bat, the most noticeable quality of the film is the haunting atmosphere. In most cases, films like these create a relatively grounded tone. Coming of films like the underrated Macbeth (2015) and the ill-advised Assassin’s Creed (2016), Kurzel is known for his moody style. He brings that in full force here, creating an alternate version of 1870’s Australia which is incredibly nightmarish. The dark skies, open fields, dead trees and abandoned shacks leave the viewer in constant unease. Even when crimes aren’t taking place and murders aren’t committed, you feel like the tide could turn at any moment. It’s rather impressive just how terrifying and unsettling Kurzel’s version of history is. Portraying everything like a bad dream is hypnotic and the height of Kurzel’s directorial abilities.
With that in mind, the cinematography does an ample job in heightening the uneasy feeling. There are standard rules to framing, camera movement and editing which most films follow to create a coherent experience. Kurzel definitely keeps thing’s coherent, but those other standard rules are deliberately ignored. The choice to use non-conventional camerawork dials the dark tone to 11. The audience is generally conditioned to find normal camerawork comforting, so ignoring traditional filmmaking techniques takes that comfort away. It is a clever trick which creates striking and hypnotic visuals. For the most part, Kurzel achieves this goal. However, there are times where traditional filmmaking craft would have been appreciated, as it would have enhanced the drama. In these moments, the staging and cinematography distract instead of immerse.
Happily, there is a talented cast of local and international actors carrying the material. George Mackay, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie, Jacob Collins-Levy, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave and others all commit to their haunting performances. Some even need to perfect accents which aren’t their own. To the untrained ear, the accent work is flawless. Each of the performers commit to Kurzel’s vision, which is commendable considering that the cast is a mix of A-list talent and new talent. Despite the good work from the cast, the characterisation doesn’t fully work. Each character has motivation and thematic purpose, but the script doesn’t make any of it completely clear. This makes it difficult to get fully invested, even if the viewer has knowledge of the source material.
Matters are further complicated in how the film builds on its various influences. Everyone has a working knowledge of Ned Kelly’s story and the film is all too aware of that fact. Details of Kelly’s history are changed to a massive degree, which is fine when considering that the book is a deliberately fictional retelling. Even so, the story unfolds as if the filmmakers anticipated a backlash from general audiences. There’s plenty of thematic exposition to explain the alterations. Ordinarily, providing reasons for an alternate history helps flesh out the new world and generally arrives to an interesting point. In this film, the explanations are just used as a shield against criticism. The point the narrative leads to doesn’t have anything to say, instead just drawing attention to how it’s different from actual history.
Responding to audience expectation isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, films which successfully defy expectations can be delightfully clever. However, it’s one thing to defy expectations and another thing entirely to incorporate what the audience feels into the story. Namely, Ned Kelly is famous and important to modern viewers. Time has been kind to Ned Kelly, elevating him to the status of a legend. In his day, he may have been a famous outlaw, but it was (arguably) after his capture and death that he became legendary. From the very start, characterising Kelly and his gang as destined folk heroes feels bizarre, as it doesn’t make sense in context. This is because Kelly as a folk hero is a modern idea. It doesn’t fully work in a period setting, despite the narrative reasons given to explain it. On the plus side, this give the story a lofty importance even though it doesn’t make the most sense.
Overall, The True History Of The Kelly Gang can be described as an interesting experiment. Despite it’s confusing characterisation, muddled thematics and self-important revisionism, Justin Kurzel is still a filmmaker with an uncompromised vision. The entire cast and crew commit to the vision and concept unashamedly, which is to be respected. Regardless, it was the concept itself and the nature of its historical revisionism which hold it back.
Best way to watch it: On Stan (once you’ve gotten through everything else).