Justin Kurzel effectively explores the making and unmaking of one of history, and cinema’s, most famous outlaws.

Dr Edward Weech on Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ (2019)

Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang continues the long cinematic tradition of presenting the story of outlaw and (for some) folk hero Ned Kelly on the silver screen. The filmic staging of the Kelly myth is bound up with the very origins of cinema: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) has been described as the first full-length narrative feature film, and numerous offerings since, including Tony Richardson’s (1970) and Gregor Jordan’s (2003, both films simply called Ned Kelly) have met with mixed success. Kurzel’s dramatisation of Kelly’s career is based on Peter Carey’s highly successful 2001 novel of the same name: a romantic account of the killer’s life, presented in the form of an autobiography. 

The adaptation of a fictional work about a historical figure threatens to layer myth upon myth, with Kelly’s contested and divisive legacy seemingly destined to repeated polemical re-imagining. For some, Kelly’s quasi-political status transforms him from hellraising gangster to freedom fighter; while those of us with Irish heritage may be especially tempted to claim him as one of “our own.” But even those who lack such a connection, and who categorically condemn his bloody career, may find themselves compelled by aspects of the “Western” archetype, immortalised by cinema, which he seems to embody: just as with Jesse James, named elsewhere by this site’s editor as another “problematic but also deeply charismatic and capable gunslinger.”

True to the integrity of their craft, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant commendably eschew the temptation to seize upon Kelly’s tale as an opportunity for hollow soul-searching about the past, or as an allegorical opportunity for inveighing against present injustices. Their film is self-aware without being self-regarding: disclaiming at the outset that “Nothing you are about to see is true”, its story is in certain respects uglier and less emotionally satisfying than the lyrical novel upon which it is based. But it is all the more interesting for that.

This Kelly story begins in 1867, on the unyielding frontier of the recently-founded British colony of Victoria, tucked away in the south-east corner of Australia and bordering the prison colony of Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania). We see through the eyes of young Ned (Orlando Schwert) as his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, The Babadook) prostitutes herself to a local police sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) in payment for turning a blind eye to the illegal distillery which supports her family. Ned’s father stands nearby, a baby on his shoulder, telling Ned not to look. The boy soon begins to challenge his shiftless father’s status as the “man of the house”, encouraged in doing so by his hard-bitten mother, who despises her husband and with whom Ned has distinctly Oedipal chemistry. A pivotal moment, imbued with psychosexual significance, sees Ned bring home a side of stolen meat, delighting his mother and displacing his father as the one who “brings home the bacon”. It’s reminiscent of a similarly Freudian episode in The Sopranos when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) recalls his father bringing home a joint of bloody meat, shortly after watching him torture the butcher over an unpaid debt: the only time, Tony remarks, he saw his mother display sexual interest in his father.

Kelly’s father had shared the fate of countless other British and Irish convicts in the nineteenth century, transported almost ten thousand miles and, after surviving his sentence, trying to live in Australia alongside free settlers. A large proportion of those who migrated or were transported to Australia from Ireland were Catholic, and the sectarian politics and anti-Catholic discrimination which were a fact of life in Britain and Ireland at that time were transplanted to Australian soil. But religious discrimination, political oppression, pre-existing poverty, and a harsh natural environment were not the only challenges facing penniless migrants or ex-convicts in the new colony. Many also had to contend with their own lack of the skills and education necessary to thrive; skills which were often more prevalent in other ethnic and religious groups. 

The Kelly’s were a poor Irish family, and in Australia they had to make use of the cultural behaviours and attitudes with which they were familiar. But while Ned’s childhood is bleak, his health and natural attributes mean his future is not entirely hopeless. A crucial episode sees Ned rescue a young boy from drowning; the child turning out to be the scion of a rich English family, Ned is rewarded with a bright yellow sash, and more importantly with the offer of a fully-funded boarding school education. The writing ability which Ned demonstrates in later life testifies to intelligence and latent productive potential which such an education might have helped cultivate. Ned’s mother, however, insultingly rejects the offer of English charity, telling Ned that she couldn’t possibly cope without him. The self-serving nature of this lie is revealed soon enough, when she sells Ned to bushwhacker Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who pays fifteen pounds to recruit him as an accomplice. Instead of an English education, then, Ned receives an apprenticeship in outlawry, which predictably terminates in a long jail sentence. 

In his book Conquest and Cultures (1998), economist Thomas Sowell described human cultures as “the working machinery of everyday life”. Machinery which performs poorly imposes costs on the people who use it: costs which are “not always paid in money but may range from inconveniences to death”. Ellen’s deliberate decision to raise her son as a criminal is an example of what Sowell calls “negative human capital”, or “attitudes which prevent or impede the performance of economic tasks that people are otherwise quite capable of performing, both physically and intellectually.” Without apologising for the cruelty and corruption of the English-derived establishment in 1870s Victoria, Kurzel’s True History… shows the tragic consequences of spiting opportunities for self-improvement and embracing cultural atavism. It thereby challenges the romanticised view of Ned Kelly as a heroic republican “Robin Hood”, offering instead a thought-provoking reflection upon what happens when bitterness and resentment are handed down as a prized inheritance between generations. 

Ned’s years in jail precipitate a time-skip, after which acting duties are handed over to George MacKay. MacKay imbues the role with physicality and authenticity that compare favourably against earlier depictions of Kelly by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. The film’s cast is impressive, and the presence of Crowe and Hunnam adds heft to the opening act, even if Hunnam’s Sergeant O’Neill is only occasionally comprehensible. Nicholas Hoult turns in a scene-stealing performance as the English Constable Fitzpatrick, substantially brightening an otherwise dour movie. At first, even watchful Ned is won over by Fitzpatrick’s impregnable self-assurance and eccentric charm. But as their fates become intertwined, Fitzpatrick slowly finds himself being consumed by the white heat of Ned’s violent insurrection, after he takes up arms against the authorities in the hope of releasing his “Ma” from jail. 

In one of the film’s central scenes, Ellen Kelly proudly boasts that the measure of a mother is how much her children are prepared to sacrifice on her behalf. Just as her warped priorities condemned young Ned to a life of crime, her inversion of nature’s contract between parent and child proves to be psychologically as well as morally destructive. It also rehearses the Oedipal dynamic which helps seal Ned’s fate. Indeed, emasculation is a recurring theme, beginning with the shaming of Ned’s father before progressing to the literal emasculation of a cattle thief, as well as Power’s threatened emasculation of Sergeant O’Neill. Reviewers have also made much of the symbolism of the film’s latter stages, when the insurgents of the Kelly Gang habitually wear women’s dresses: a point of continuity with Irish rural outlaws who used to disguise themselves in the same manner. 

This version of the Ned Kelly myth is a sad, rather than heroic tale. Ned gets the idea for his iconic “ironclad” armour while admiring a blueprint for the warship USS Monitor, which he spies in Constable Fitzpatrick’s living room. This late encounter with the science of engineering encapsulates how Ned’s intellectual ingenuity and personal qualities are misapplied: his creative powers, which could have been used to benefit himself and others, being deployed instead to advance a criminal crusade. In this context, the radical rhetoric which served as a cornerstone of Carey’s novel rings somewhat hollow, and the film provides much flimsier support for Ned’s claims of oppression. Sexual blackmail by corrupt policemen is a regular ordeal for female members of the Kelly family, but even here the police are exploiting opportunities created by the Kelly family’s own criminal activities. 

Myriad factors contribute to human flourishing, but most people have at least one hand in their own fate. Here, Ned is portrayed neither as victim, monster, nor hero, but as an initially sympathetic and ultimately destructive agent of his own demise. Perhaps there’s more truth in this story than the opening disclaimer portends. 

True History of the Kelly Gang’ is available now on home video and Amazon Prime.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Director Justin Kurzel

Writer Shaun Grant

Cinematographer Ari Wegner

Editor Nick Fenton

Stars George MacKay, Essie Davis, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult

Duration 124 minutes

Edward Weech

By Edward Weech

Edward Weech has a PhD in Cultural Studies from SOAS, an MPhil in History from Trinity College Dublin, and an MA in Library Studies from UCL. He has appeared in Arc Digital, The Coleridge Bulletin, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.