Whatever Faustian bargain that the Assassin’s Creed movie was part of for Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel was absolutely worth it. Though the videogame adaptation might have been dreadful, if any part of it helped him get either 2015’s Macbeth or his latest, True History of the Kelly Gang, made, then it was a net good for the world. Even better than his stellar take on the Scottish play, Kelly Gang is Kurzel’s finest achievement to date, a mesmerising masterpiece of an outback western, full of mud, blood, and rage and bolstered by a head-spinning look at the unreliability of history and memory.
Based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, rather than the ‘true’ story of Ned Kelly, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant let us know immediately that everything we’re about to witness is a highly fictionalised take on this foundational Aussie legend. Kelly Gang focuses on three stages of Ned’s life, his boyhood (impressive newcomer Orlando Schwerdt), his entry into adulthood (George MacKay), and his brief time as the self-proclaimed ‘Monitor’, where, taking inspiration from a US gunship, he put on a suit of armour and went to war with the authorities.
Kurzel and Grant take great care with laying out Ned’s origin story, and we spent a lot of time with him as a boy, watching him be shaped by his hatred of his emasculated father, the toxic love of his whirlwind of a mother Ella (Essie Davis), and the life lessons of legendary thief Harry Power (Russell Crowe). At this young age, Ned’s psyche is a vulnerable, self-contradicting thing – when he finds the red dress his father cross-dresses in, he’s repulsed by it, but Kurzel shoots the garment like Superman’s cape, imbuing it with the violent power that Ned applies to women’s clothing later in life. He and his gang take to wearing dresses like suits of armour, disorienting and frightening their stiff-upper-lipped English foes.
MacKay is incredible as Ned, a role that is every bit as physically demanding as his work in 1917 (his first scene involves some unforgettable contortion), but with a far darker, deeper emotional core, whilst his supporting cast match him every step of the way. Charlie Hunnam is effectively slimy as rapey copper Sergeant O’Neil, while Davis is both haunting and haunted as a twisted portrait of motherhood. She’s rage and love and sex and fear colliding together, and you’re never quite sure which aspect of her is going to win out in any given scene.
Similarly excellent is Crowe, who brings his unique combination of warmth and menace as well as providing some rare but welcome comic relief – not least when he sings his ‘Constable Cunt’ song to all the young Kelly children at dinnertime. Towering over everyone else, though, is Nicholas Hoult as the obsessive Constable Fitzpatrick, initially an uneasy friend of Ned’s before becoming his nemesis. Hoult is captivating, every scene of his gluing your eyes to the screen in a combination of authoritarianism, petulance, and general entitled awfulness. Though Fitzpatrick begins well-spoken (albeit delivering his opening monologue while stark naked), the influence Ned has on him has him becoming ever so slightly more simian, scene by scene.
It’s a perfectly controlled performance, my favourite bit of acting since Steven Yeun’s similarly villainous turn in 2018’s Burning, and is easily the best work Hoult has ever done, leaving even his superb turns in Mad Max and The Favourite in the dust. His slide into insanity is so well modulated that even when he holds a baby at gunpoint he feels believable, a remarkable feat.
Fractured minds are everywhere in Kelly Gang, and it’s in his representation of this that Kurzel proves himself one of the finest working directors. Yes, every shot is spectacularly gorgeous, and yes, the final shootout is a masterclass in action that disorients without becoming messy, but it’s these slightly subtler moments that Kurzel really shines. As Ned becomes less and less able to trust his own mind, anachronisms start slipping in to the story, mere glimpses at first, but soon becoming glaringly obvious without anyone on screen noticing that something is wrong. It’s a sublime touch, one that unnerves and thrills, burrowing under your skin, a perfect representation of not only Ned’s out-of-time mindset but also the impossible strangeness of trying to insert oneself into a history that’s already occurred.
Rounding out the technical triumphs is a wild animal of a score from Jed Kurzel, prowling and cackling at the edge of the action. As may be obvious, there are a lot of big elements at play in Kelly Gang, but Kurzel keeps everything working in tandem – no matter how showy the visuals, soundtrack, or performances are at any given time, nothing is at the expense of anything else. All tied together by a script that blends the poetic with some of the most explicit profanity you’ll hear in a cinema, everything about True History of the Kelly Gang feels dangerous in the most exciting way.