Monday, February 28, 2022

#2,716. The True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) - 21st Century Westerns Triple Feature


While it may not be as historically accurate as its title suggests, director Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is an engaging account of a real-life outlaw, and features a lead character who is equal parts folk hero and violent desperado.

As a boy, young Ned (played superbly by Orlando Schwerdt) quickly learns the harsh realities of life. His father (Gentle Ben Corbett) is often either drunk or absent, leaving his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) with little choice but to prostitute herself, sleeping with Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) of the Queen’s Colonial Army just to make ends meet. When Ned’s father dies in prison (arrested for a crime actually committed by Ned), Ellen “sells” Ned to outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who tries to instruct the reluctant boy in the finer points of killing and stealing.

After serving time himself (for shooting and wounding Sgt. O’Neill), a grown-up Ned (George MacKay) returns home, only to find his mother has hooked up with American horse thief George King (Marlon Williams). What’s more, Ned’s younger brother Dan (Earl Cave) is King’s accomplice!

At first, Ned rejects the criminal lifestyle embraced by his family, only to become an outlaw himself when he’s pushed too far by British Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who threatens to arrest Dan and Ellen while at the same time insulting Ned’s new girlfriend Mary (Thomasin McKenzie). Joined by Dan as well as good friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Ned spends his days one short step ahead of the law, and is only too happy to shoot every colonial policeman that crosses his path.

Stylistically, The True History of the Kelly Gang is positively electric, with director Kurzel bringing plenty of 21st century flash and flare to this story of 19th century outlaws. Shoot-outs are filmed on the fly with handheld cameras, and some of the music used throughout, composed by the director’s brother Jed Kurzel, has a very modern feel. The film also does a fine job recreating the time period in which its set, and walked off with three AACTA Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscars) for costumes, hair & makeup, and production design.

As the title character, George MacKay effectively portrays both the reserved Ned who initially wants nothing to do with crime, and the madman gunning down colonial policemen (at one point, Ned even cuts the ear off one of his victims as a souvenir). Throughout the movie, Ned Kelly proves to be a complex character, and MacKay does a wonderful job bringing his seemingly conflicting nuances to the surface.

Matching MacKay every step of the way are Essie Davis as Ned’s feisty, no-nonsense mother; Russell Crowe as the savage Harry Power; and Nicholas Hoult as the slimy Fitzpatrick, whose methods of enforcing the law often cross the line (he goes so far as to hold a gun on a baby to coerce information out of the child’s mother).

The True History of the Kelly Gang does get a bit too frantic in the second half, when Ned is in full-blown outlaw mode (matching its lead character’s state of mind, the pacing becomes frenzied, even confusing, jumping from one sequence to another so quickly that we occasionally lose our bearings). Fortunately, it doesn’t spoil what came before it (Ned’s childhood and early adulthood are handled brilliantly). An Australian western with plenty of punch, The True History of the Kelly Gang is well worth a watch.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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