Justin Kurzel puts manhood, infamous 1800s criminals, and the first feature film ever made into a bushranging blender.
“None of what you are about to see is true,” a black screen proclaims. Then, as the words fade away, the last one stays to segue into the title. Maybe None of What You Are About to See Is True History of the Kelly Gang was too long. Maybe the transition is simply a cute choice, or, better yet, maybe it’s a sly foreshadow of the near-constant activity to follow. Whichever one it is, it’s actually quite fitting. True History of the Kelly Gang, after all, begins with great flair. It’s when it trades it for a traditional narrative that it starts to wither away.
The trees are 100-foot stalagmites. The Australian sky welcomes them in one scene then nurtures them in the next. Once young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt) wades through the wilderness, director Justin Kurzel and DP Ari Wegner show just how effectively the sky holds this forest down. Each rod of timber reaches the same plateau only to stop, to form a bed of spikes spreading acres. Given how much Ned has tried to evade the capital-M Men around him, it’s only fitting for the trees to fall into something similar.
Most men, like Sgt. O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam), who pays Ned’s mother (Essie Davis) for sex, act like cruel older brothers. Local bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) makes his drunken prowess look like welcome parentage in comparison. When Ned’s mother sells him to Harry, the movie cuts to him as an adult (George MacKay)—and yes, he’s still trying to dodge being the outlaw fate has ordered him to become. At least he’s fallen into a circle of queer men including Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), and in come one of its more welcome wrinkles. Well, for a little while.
It’s safe to say that it doesn’t take long the homoerotic subtext of True History of the Kelly Gang to become text. When it does, Kurzel approaches it without any condescension, as he too knows it to be one of the tale’s most salient pieces. It’s even more tantalizing given how Shaun Grant’s script moves fast enough so that sequences butt heads to near-disorienting results. The novelistic approach works quite well to form an emotional mosaic here (and not just because the script is based on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name).
But while the first hour works for these reasons, the second is too traditional to fulfill its potential. Here’s a movie that should make an impact after the credits have rolled, and while it sets itself up for that, the second half is too tidy and self-conscious. Worse yet, it points to a disconnect between Grant’s script and Kurzel’s direction. The former wants to make two distinct halves while the latter wants to tie them up in a bow. Pacing discrepancies aside, it’s as if the director is too shy about the material, his style going from haunting to predictable.
Pacing discrepancies aside, it’s as if the director is too shy about the material, his style going from haunting to predictable.
And is that just in terms of its violence? No; that’s actually the most consistent. Rather, Kurzel’s depiction of queer men wants to be coy, but it’s sanitized to the point where Kelly Gang itself seems skittish about gay context. There’s a lack of nudity that, in theory, should be tantalizing, but it’s too vanilla to compare the straight hypermasculinity of O’Neil and Harry with the queer gaze of Ned and Fitzpatrick. By the time the gang fully forms and the protagonists are fighting in dresses, little liberation has come about. The camera has fully shifted into watching characters instead of seeing who they are, or whom they’ve detached themselves from.
Truthfully, by the time the movie’s politics become much more overt, True History of the Kelly Gang becomes more of an exercise in semiotics. The through line of revising Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang—widely considered to be the first feature film ever—is a salient idea. Using Australian cinema as emblem of the culture’s sins is especially rife with potential. There’s even more when those sins blur into folklore, but it’s just too bad that Kurzel’s movie can’t bear to look at things from too far away.
True History of the Kelly Gang raids VOD this Friday, April 24.