Lots of films are based on true stories and real people, but Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” may be the only one to admit that even movies based on real life can’t be trusted. The first words we see on the screen in Kurzel’s dark epic, which had its world premiere last fall in Toronto, are “nothing you are about to see is true.” All of those words fade away except the last one, which then forms the first word of the movie’s title.
So the word truth, in this instance, will mean whatever we want it to mean. “True History of the Kelly Gang” is a true history, it’s a made-up story, it’s a vivid dramatization of one angle on an unknowable story and it’s a riff on the cultural mythmaking that John Ford explored when a newspaper editor in his “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” declares, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It is also a bold, violent take on the 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, a monumental tour through what one character calls “dirt and disappointment.”
If Tony Richardson’s 1970 “Ned Kelly” was the rock ‘n’ roll version of this story by virtue of Mick Jagger in the title role, Kurzel’s film is the punk-rock version, with raging new songs written by actors (including Nick Cave’s son Earl) dropped into the film at key points.
“True History of the Kelly Gang” opens with a haunting image: a white horse galloping through a dark, desolate landscape of bare trees, its rider a mysterious figure in a blood-red dress. Kurzel’s last film was his version of “Macbeth,” and the opening sets up “Kelly Gang” to be as bleak, majestic and doom-laden as that Shakespeare tragedy.
The story of Kelly, an outlaw who became a folk hero, does have the arc of classic tragedy. His Irish father was sent to a British penal colony in Australia for stealing pigs, and the lesson of Ned’s youth was that he was inexorably drawn to a life of crime because nobody would ever see him as anything more than a criminal.
Russell Crowe makes a brief role as Harry Power, Kelly’s mentor in crime — but by the time Kelly grows from a young boy played by Orlando Schwerdt to a young man played by a sinewy, feral George Mackay, he doesn’t need anybody to teach him how to be an outlaw. Together with a gang of men with nothing left to lose, he terrorizes the British lawmen in the colony, notably Sgt. O’Neil (played by Charlie Hunnam as a man accustomed to abusing the Kelly family) and Constable Fitzpatrick (played by Nicholas Hoult with the kind of sleazy gleam that he’s pretty much trademarked).
There is a terrible majesty to the landscape and to the story, and Kurzel gives it room to breathe. Ned Kelly doesn’t exactly earn our sympathy, but we give it to him anyway, because the British are worse and because this is Ned’s story, told in his voiceover as he writes a letter to his unborn daughter (which, FYI, the real Ned never had).
The film builds to a huge confrontation between the gang and the law, and the sequence is both horrifying and riveting: carnage in the darkness, screams and silence, white cloaks and rivers of blood.
It is a true story? Not really. But it’s a “true” story, and Kurzel makes sure that’s enough.