True History of the Kelly Gang
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

An outlaw’s life may be brutish and short, but movies have a long memory. And none more, maybe, than for Ned Kelly, the Australian bushranger whose body-armored exploits have made him a muse since the dawn of cinema. (Literally: A 1906 silent production called The Story of The Kelly Gang is generally believed to be the first full-length feature film.)

Mick Jagger once played him on screen; Heath Ledger did too. Now, with True History of the Kelly Gang (available April 24 on VOD), director Justin Kurzel (MacBeth, Assassin’s Creed) has George MacKay, the taciturn young Brit tasked with carrying so much of Sam Mende’s one-shot World War I drama 1917 on his tall shoulders.

MacKay is a far fiercer presence here, his whittled-down body practically vibrating with the mad-dog intensity of the role. And Kurzel clearly has big ambitions for his gang — the cast includes Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Hoult, and Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie — aiming for a sort of gleefully savage, aggressively stylized retelling somewhere between True Grit and Quadrophenia.

That makes for some indelible images, most notably in MacKay’s first, wildly contorted appearance on screen. But it can also make the film feel unintentionally silly — particularly the choice to outfit 19th-century characters like members of a mod biker gang, or some extremely fashionable desert death cult. (MacKay’s haircut alone is a marvel of follicular engineering, a sort of modified bowl-cut mullet with Bettie Page bangs.)

The story, based on the best-selling 2001 novel by Peter Carey, doesn't stint on the details of Kelly’s hardscrabble childhood; it opens on young Ned (Orlando Schwert) watching his mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), perform a sex act on Hunnam's leeringly corrupt policeman in what turns out to be the first of many bluntly Oedipal moments. And life doesn't get easier when the boy's father dies, leaving the family without steady income or protection.

A heavily bearded Crowe, in full burly-koala mode, appears briefly as a late-coming suitor of Ellen's who also happens to be a practiced cattle thief. He’s something like a father figure too, and though his lesson’s aren’t exactly welcome, they do make an impact: By the time MacKay steps into the role, Ned has become a man whose only moral compass is survival, and revenge against the many who’ve done him wrong.

You can see gifted actors like Hoult and MacKay struggling to make the most of the material, and add finer shadings to Shaun Grant's bare-knuckled script. But for all its real visual flair, it's hard not to feel that the film misses something crucial about Kelly in the end — trading machismo for manhood, and sensation for true history. B-

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