True History of the Kelly Gang interprets the life of Ned Kelly, an Australian outlaw of the 19th century. Beginning with his traumatic childhood and ending with his undoing, the film is set up as a letter from Ned Kelly to his unborn son, in which he swears to tell him only the truth about his father’s life. The truth proves itself to be the thematic centrepiece of the film—and an appropriate one, considering how the historical Kelly is lost in his own mythology.
The cinematography is breathtaking. Against the bleak, grey-and-white Australian landscape, the colourful frocks of the Kelly gang are bizarre and beautiful. There is also a punk element amid the 19th century setting: the costumes have a touch of Vivienne Westwood, the walls where the Kelly gang meet their end are scribbled over with graffiti, and of course, the overall attitude of the gang as they form is anarchic, seeking to free itself of the tyranny of colonial corruption.
Characters onscreen are a joy to watch. Ned Kelly himself was well-played by George McKay, who brought Kelly from hardened innocent to tragic madman. Essie Davis’ Ellen Kelly, the family’s ruthless matriarch, is first seen idealistically through young Ned’s eyes, but quickly emerges to be a complex, narcissistic and jarring character. Even the brief presence of Harry Power (Russell Crowe) is a powerful, memorable and oddly charming one.
Better than the characters were their relationships. Ned’s loyalty to his mother brings a disturbing relationship of love and manipulation. He may resent her, but he is willing to die for her; she is gleeful at the thought. As a child, Ned’s relationship with his father is ridden with guilt, while his bond with his mentor Harry Power goes from warm and affectionate to barbaric in moments. Later, the Kelly gang form the warmth and camaraderie missing from their early lives—they are physical, wrestling and teasing one another, and (iconically) stealing each other dresses.
The main point of weakness was Mary, Ned’s love interest and the mother of his child. She is flat and mild, with practically no character of her own. She begins as a prostitute who wins his affection, for no apparent reason; after she has served her central purpose in the plot, she’s basically off making croutes and holding her baby for the rest of the film. Ned’s sisters are, sadly, given a similar treatment, with even less screen time. It seems a wasted opportunity, particularly when the real Ned Kelly’s sisters seem to have been very much involved in his tempestuous life.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas now.
Reviewed as Film of the Week, in partnership with Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh