Though usually depicted as a quasi-Robin Hood folktale, Justin Kurzel’s take on Ned Kelly’s story centres on a title character bound by morbid destiny. Similarly to Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning book – on which this film is based – the whole story is framed through the extended letter the eponymous Kelly is writing in the film’s closing movements.
Written from this point in time, it’s unsurprising that Kelly sees his life as pre-determined; or at the very least, that every event edged him towards the police shoot-out which has lived on in public consciousness. By book-ending the film with the same shot of a singular rider surging through the outback, Kurzel underlines the butterfly effect which Kelly himself feels a product of.
Unlike the more sympathetic, Heath Ledger-led Ned Kelly (2003), True History of the Kelly Gang is violent, visceral and completely lacking in gloss. This real-life bushman isn’t depicted as a cheerful class warrior, but as a man buckling under the weight of English oppression and the pressure of destiny.
Kurzel’s recreation of Macbeth (2015) was a vivid, brutal affair, and there’s more than a touch of Shakespeare to his latest. Harry Power (a stellar extended cameo from Russell Crowe) is the demonic Falstof to Kelly’s wayward Prince Hal, but the film slowly slides into Greek tragedy.
In the titular role, Mackay is a knockout. Beginning his depiction of Kelly economically, he brings a lithe, muscular intensity to the smallest of actions. Whether it be a questioning glance or his overall rigidity, Mackay creates a character perennially on the edge and simmering beneath the surface. In the film’s closing third, however, he’s able to let rip. Mackay’s wide-eyed, brutal intensity is both compelling and unsettling, and transforms Kelly into a crazed messiah.
Kurzel’s visual flair fills every frame of the film’s two hour run-time. Kelly is born and raised in the barren, arid outback; an area replete with twisted, dying trees. When he’s taken under the wing of Harry Power, he moves through an unforgiving and cold landscape. Instead of the sweeping, romantic Australia we see in, say Baz Luhrman’s, well, Australia (2008), this is a land which is feral, wild and unkempt.
Bouncing from one vivid vignette to another, the film feels like a grim (or perhaps Grimm) fairy-tale. And while there are some excellent supporting turns (Nicholas Hoult fully inhabiting the preening Constable Fitzpatrick, for example), the overall effect can be messy. Kurzel evidently has a lot to say – from a critique of systemic oppression to a questioning of masculinity – but the focus is sometimes lacking. In spite of many admirable elements, it’s a history which lacks a golden thread to tie it all these fierce facets together.