The film opens with, “Nothing you’re about to see is true,” so you know that even though it’s based on the true story of an infamous Australian outlaw and folk hero, extensive liberties have been taken. Adapted from a novel by Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang is really Ned Kelly’s (George MacKay, 1917) story. It’s told in two parts: young Ned’s education at the hands of his less than perfect parents and grown Ned’s criminal life and death. The first part gives you a sense of how he became who he was. The second part is less coherent.
It begins in the mid-19th century in a remote part of Australia. The Kelly family were “bushrangers,” criminals who thrived in the the bush as they robbed, stole livestock, and generally flouted the law. Many of them were the children of escaped convicts, those sent to Australia when it was used as a British penal colony. And the Kellys were Irish, which was another strike against them. After his father dies in prison, Ned takes on the head of the house role, that is until his mother Ellen (Essie Davis – The Babadook) sells him to bushranger Harry Power (a grizzled Russell Crowe) who sort of takes him under his wing, until they have a falling out. Then fast forward and he’s grown and Mom gets arrested and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, The Favourite, X-men series) becomes his nemesis.
When he was a kid, before Dad died he stumbled upon a frilly dress that Dad had hidden. Seems he wore it when he was thieving and such. And Mom makes mention of remembering he’s one of the Sons of Sieve. That one was lost on me, though you have a feeling it’s something to do with his Irish background. Turns out (at least in this version of history) they’re a cross-dressing band of brothers intent on bringing down the British empire through robbing and striking back at the law. And when Ned decides that Mom’s imprisonment needs to come to an end, he gathers a gang and hatches a plan to kill the whole constabulary of nearby Victoria. Warning: It gets pretty bloody. And even though he doesn’t succeed, he becomes a folk hero to the downtrodden Australian/Irish population.
The film is narrated from a fictional diary he wrote to his unborn child, letting the audience in on his philosophy and motives. It’s sometimes very effective. But I was confused at times, perhaps because I could not make out the accents. And I wished there had been more to the part with Russell Crowe. At least he felt like a fully realized character. And that’s the biggest problem with the film. There is a whole lot of style, particularly of the anarcho/punk variety, but the story and characters are less developed. And overall it’s too long! My suspicion is the book is more fun.
The film is currently available online streaming.