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On VOD: TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2020)

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TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
(Australia/France/UK/China - 2020)

Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Shaun Grant. Cast: George MacKay, Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Ben Corbett, Claudia Karvan, Jack Charles, Lola Hewison, Paul Capsis, Jacob Collins-Levy. (R, 125 mins)

Licking his wounds after his ill-advised sojourn to Hollywood for a big-budget video game franchise that wasn't with the dismal ASSASSIN'S CREED, Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, MACBETH) retreats to safer ground with the smaller-scale TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG. Based on Peter Carey's acclaimed 2000 novel of the same name, the film is yet another look at the life of Australian outlaw, folk hero, and cultural icon Ned Kelly, executed by hanging in 1880 and played in the past by Mick Jagger in 1970's NED KELLY and by Heath Ledger in an identically-titled 2003 version. Carey's novel was more or less high-end Ned Kelly fan fiction, and Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant take even more liberties with their so-called "punk rock" adaptation, most notably with some gender-bending elements and overt homoeroticism that indicate a queer interpretation of the Kelly mythology. It doesn't really stick the landing and comes off as trying too hard to force a subtext--one that wasn't in the novel--through the enlightened lens of woke 2020. It's an interesting approach that probably seemed like a better concept on paper than in the way it plays out on the screen, where the feeling ends up being one of a grim Down Under western like THE PROPOSITION if re-imagined by HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH auteur John Cameron Mitchell.






The title itself is an intentional misnomer, as an opening caption reads "Nothing you're about to see is true." The story is told through a letter Kelly writes to his unborn child, and we first see 12-year-old Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) in the desolate nowhere of Van Diemen's Land, where his father Red (Ben Corbett) has been banished. The area is patrolled by despicable Brit Sgt. O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam), who regularly enjoys the sexual services of Red's wife and Ned's mother Ellen (THE BABADOOK's Essie Davis, who's terrific here). When Red is hauled away by O'Neil and eventually dies, Ellen takes up with a variety of suitors, including the notorious Harry Power (a bloated, madman-bearded Russell Crowe), a wily bushranger and feared outlaw who takes Ned under his wing and teaches him to be a man. It turns out to be yet another cruel life lesson for young Ned, who wants to go back to his mother but is informed that it's out of the question since she sold him to Harry. As an adult, Ned (1917's George MacKay takes over the role 40 minutes in) is making a meager living as a bareknuckle brawler and returns along with his friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) to his ramshackle child home, where his mother has taken up with George King (Marlon Williams), an American who's the same age as he is, and who politely introduces himself to his stepson with "I try to forget that you came kicking and screaming out of that pussy." Ned, who exchanges longing glances and playful physical affection with Joe (including spooning and cuddling) is alarmed to find his younger brother Dan (Earl Cave, Nick's lookalike son) wearing dresses and in a sexual relationship with one-eyed Steve Hart (Louis Hewison). That bit of info is given to him by sadistic constable Alex Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, channeling a young Malcolm McDowell), who Ned first meets at a local brothel, where they flirt with one another while a nude Fitzpatrick lounges on a sofa wearing nothing but garters and socks and waxing rhapsodic about fucking while wearing a dress.





Though punctuated by sporadic instances of shocking violence (including one guy strung up to a tree with his own balls crammed into his mouth), TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG is less a commercial western and more a surreal, stylized study of the tortured psyche of Ned Kelly, whether it's him sorting out his bi-curiosity and his masculinity, his unresolved Oedipal issues with his unstable mother, or his love for prostitute and single mom Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie), who gets the full Ellen Kelly treatment upon her introduction, with Ned's mother spitting "Look at you...you got one of those cunts men fall in love with." It's not just the "True" part of the title that's a misnomer, but the Kelly Gang as well. Kurzel and Grant aren't interested in any of the standard western exploits of an outlaw gang. Said gang--cross-dressing enthusiasts calling themselves "Sons of Sieve," and initially comprised of Ned, Dan, Steve, and Jim, before being joined by many others--just appears in time for the shootout with British constables at Glenrowan, presented here in seizure-inducing Gaspar Noe-like fashion with intense strobe lighting and the constables represented in the distance as flashing skeletal figures with light beams for bullets. MacKay gives it his all in a performance that frequently borders on feral, but Kurzel and Grant don't appear to be working toward a defined purpose here, throwing a ton of ideas at the wall--including some intentional anachronisms that seem to be a shout-out to WALKER-era Alex Cox, which no one needs--just to see what sticks. TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG works best in the more conventional opening third, which is where it's most like your usual grim Australian western, with a hammy Crowe briefly taking center stage, leading the Kelly kids in a catchy and stunningly vulgar singalong and proving himself an absolutely merciless bastard once he's got young Ned in tow. The film gets less interesting as each name actor exits (Crowe and Hunnam both check out by the 35-minute mark). That's not on MacKay, but the more TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG goes on, the more Kurzel loses the thread and the film becomes an exercise in ponderous, scattershot self-indulgence that's trying to be too many things at once.

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