‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Review: a 19th-Century Outlaw Tale

Ned Kelly is a legendary figure in Australian history, a 19th-century outlaw of Irish descent who came to symbolize the struggle of oppressed people on that continent. (Oppressed white people, that is.) “True History of the Kelly Gang” takes the form of Kelly’s story as told by Ned himself. While not well versed in letters, he writes a lengthy missive to his child as his hour comes nigh, recounting his ultra-hardscrabble childhood.

“A man can never outrun his fate, nor the crimes of his past,” he observes, anticipating his own end. His account of himself features anecdotes that include his refusal, as a child under the tutelage of outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe, looking very relaxed), to shoot off the genitals of the local official (Charlie Hunnam) who’s been sexually abusing Ned’s mother. Yikes.

There are a couple of action scenes in “True Story of the Kelly Gang” that show off the director Justin Kurzel’s technical chops and eye for novelty. A climactic shootout with startling strobe-like lighting effects is undeniably impressive. But the jumpy, springy qualities of the movie’s visual style are unfortunately undercut by its verbal content.

The movie is adapted from a Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey. If you haven’t read the book, you might wonder while watching the movie, “THIS cold porridge won a Booker?” Well, no. While Carey’s voice for Kelly does contain some commonplace language, the prose also has music and momentum (the narrative abjures commas but is still clear enough to flow coherently, no mean feat). It also allows Kelly some vivid similes, as in, “Your Grandma was like a snare laid out by God for Red Kelly.” Shaun Grant’s script rarely, if ever, avails itself of such riches; instead, the narration and dialogue teem with outlaw-movie clichés.

Grant and Kurzel’s conceptions of the characters are so one-dimensional they seem to defeat the movie’s talented cast. As Kelly’s mother, Essie Davis, excellent in “The Babadook” and the upcoming “Babyteeth,” does little besides jut out her jaw while either sneering or smirking. Her trite defiance is exemplified when she remonstrates against a would-be teacher who would pollute young Ned’s mind with “fancy books.” As the adult Kelly, George MacKay seems content to run around with his shirt off and make faces while faux-punk songs adorn the soundtrack. For minutes at a time, you might think, and also maybe wish, that you were watching “Trainspotting.”

True History of the Kelly Gang

Rated R for violence, language and a bit of sexuality. In English and Latin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. Rent or buy on Amazon, AppleTV and other streaming platforms, as well as pay TV operators.

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