Comparing the Kelly Gang of Australian western lore with the saga of Billy the Kid can be true as well as a misnomer.
by Michael Bergeron
There are parallels to be sure. Both Ned Kelly and Henry McCarty were already bigger than life in their own lifetimes. Both have been the subject of numerous films that portray them as misunderstood and sympathetic.
How much of their respective legend is true is up for debate? In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” the narrative ends with a reporter ripping up his notes while saying “When the legend becomes fact print the legend.”
A new film “True Story of the Kelly Gang” goes into exactitude by following Ned from youth to death. Only the 2000 source novel penned by Peter Carey, winner of a Booker Award, was known more for its rural vernacular than its verisimilitude.
The sub-genre of movies that purport to unwind as true crime drama would include such dandy entertainment as “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (Not that it matter but most of what follows is true.) and “Fargo” (The names have been changed out of respect for the dead. The rest has been told exactly as it occurred.). There’s a sly subversion to spinning a yarn with half-truths while making its salient points indisputable.
Ned Kelly has already been the subject of two previous Australian films. “Ned Kelly” starring Mick Jagger from 1970 and “Ned Kelly” from 2003 with Heath Ledger headlining.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” scores by casting current hot actors in main roles while supplementing the tale with dazzling visual imagery.
George MacKay, still fresh from his lead turn in “1917,” stars as Ned Kelly with solid support from Charlie Hunnam (most recently in “The Gentlemen”) and Thomasin McKenzie (“Jojo Rabbit”).
Additional crucial roles are played by Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick, a Pat Garret figure who both befriends and betrays adult Ned; Essie Davis as Ned’s mum; and Russell Crowe as young Ned’s mentor Harry Power.
While America was embroiled in a Civil War, Kelly was growing up Down Under watching his father die in prison and his mother turn tricks while running a shebeen. Crowe plays a bushranger who teaches Ned to steal. Crowe finds the poetry in his character, playing guitar one moment and robbing with precision the next.
Fitzpatrick meets Kelly at a whorehouse and their conversation in a lengthy scene speaks platitudes about the relationship between the two men. They find a common bond sitting naked in the aftermath of lovemaking that will find a weird corollary in their ensuing battle. Kelly has his gang forge and wear amour including helmets when they fight the law.
Likewise, director Justin Kurzel finds inspiration in night photography with artificial lighting that illuminates horse and rider galloping across the outback. Kurzel also stages a third act gun battle by portraying the law as shiny orbs of light as seen by Kelly through his metal mask.
Kelly’s subsequent capture and execution, despite making him a romantic martyr for future generations, occurs so quickly and matter-of-factly you marvel at the efficiency of the state snuffing the life of the individual.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” beings streaming on the usual platforms this Friday, April 24.