‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Breaks a Critical Biopic Rule

A star-studded cast can't make sense of this genre-bending bust from Down Under

We live in strange times. Hollywood is shut down, and the industry’s bizarre virtue signaling has been brought to bear upon shelter in place orders.

The media industrial complex has been shown, again, to not be a beacon of resistance to tyranny but a mainstream lap dog possessing no more credibility than any other modern institution.

But of course there is the burgeoning independent film scene right? That’s been going on for a while now. Surely they care about freedom? Yet even there we still find the same pointless decadence shrouding itself in artistic bravery.

The True History of the Kelly Gang - Official Trailer I HD I IFC FIlms

Case in point is “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” an Australian film about one of the most important icons of Australian culture: the bushranger Ned Kelly. It’s a great example of attempting rebellious, interesting cinema that winds up being a confusing farce.

Aussie cinema’s contribution to film can’t be denied. “The Road Warrior,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “The Rover” are some of the greatest action/sci fi films ever made. “The Man from Snowy River,” “Quigley Down Under” and “The Proposition” are classic westerns. “The Last Wave,” “Razorback” and “The Babadook” are some of the greatest horror films that few people talk about.

Australian cinema can be powerful. But it’s also got a reputation for weirdness.

Not Quite Hollywood - Trailer

A whole documentary was made about this aspect called “Not Quite Hollywood.” And it’s there that the “True History of the Kelly Gang” belongs. This is a misfit movie about misfits, and it’s too strange for its own good.

“Kelly Gang” can’t properly be categorized, and that’s probably the point. It feels very much like a film made to be described as genre bending. But the best genre-bending films are still recognizable as a particular kind of feature. They’re just expanding on what that genre means.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is completely different from every action film that came before it, yet we know what it is and, more importantly, so did the filmmakers. It clearly has more in common with the “Matrix” and “John Wick” than, say, “American Graffiti,” despite plots dependent upon cars. Bending a genre continues an entertaining conversation in new directions.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Attack on the War Rig Scene (1/10) | Movieclips

But “Kelly Gang” has no genre. It’s based on a novel that is apparently very loosely based on the real Ned Kelly. So it’s not a historical film, yet despite this it attempts that most miserable of cinematic feats: the cradle to grave biopic.

If that counts as a genre, then it’s the most unfortunate one in film history. This is the “Wyatt Earp” vs “Tombstone” problem. Costner’s “Earp” was a disaster and “Tombstone” a classic.

The two films could not be more disparate in legacy, and it goes beyond superficial things like Val Kilmer vs Dennis Quaid as Doc Holiday. The simple truth is that “Earp” is a bloated, three-hour attempt to tell the entire life story of its eponymous character.

“Tombstone” has a plot. It goes from point A to point B and does so with great wit and wonder. It’s able to do this by limiting itself to a short period of Earp’s life, the most exciting period.

Every great biopic follows the “Tombstone” model over “Earp.” As a film, “Ghandi” (except for Ben Kingsley’s amazing performance) stinks because it tries to encompass the whole life instead of one aspect. Whereas “Walk the Line” is amazing because it tells one aspect of Johnny Cash’s life, one complete story within the bigger context of Cash.

Walk the Line (1/5) Movie CLIP - I Walk the Line (2005) HD

The only film I know of that accomplished the cradle to grave feat is “Citizen Kane,” and despite being ostensibly about William Randolph Hearst it’s actually complete fiction.

“Citizen Kane” holds the key to understanding why the “Earp” model fails. The plot is all about trying to figure out what Rosebud is, and it turns out it’s a sled. But clearly the sled represents Kane’s alienation from his humanity, or something even simpler like the joy of childhood.

But the point is the film uses the MacGuffin of rosebud to drive the entire story of who Charles Foster Kane was, and in the end the audience realizes that they know nothing about the man. The masterpiece closes on the words “No Trespassing” outside Xanadu.

A man’s life is private, it’s too big for a two hour film.

This is why films like the “Kelly Gang” fail. Their reach exceeds their grasp. They tried to make Kelly into a romantic proletariat rebel, a man killed by the system, and instead produced a self-indulgent, confusing mess.

Which is too bad because the performances and direction are excellent. The problems are all in the script. George MacKay who headlined the amazing “1917” is enigmatic and dangerous as Kelly. Nicholas Hoult plays against type as a truly disgusting villain.

The True History of the Kelly Gang - "Which Kelly Are You?" Clip I HD I IFC Films

The first third of the film is dominated by Russell Crowe and Charlie Hunnam magnificently playing characters that are completely irrelevant by the film’s end. The wonderful Thomasin McKenzie (the teen on the run from “Jojo Rabbit“) is excellent despite being given a tiny role. The cast is great but ultimately it’s a very disappointing blend of charismatic acting and poor writing.

It’s very unclear what any of the character motivations are, things just sort of happen then the script moves on to the next thing without resolution or logic. It feels like a series of disconnected vignettes within Kelly’s life, but there’s nothing holding it together.

The script assumes a lot of good faith upon the viewer towards Kelly. Maybe from an Australian perspective this all makes, but from someone who knows almost nothing about Kelly it feels like nonsense.

One Comment

  1. Part of the problem here, I think, is that Ned Kelly was such a violent, unlikeable person, and biopics about that kind of character walk a fine line – often they veer too much into sympathy for an inherently sympathetic subject. (Movies like Bronson and Chopper are more memorable because they don’t fall into this trap, and instead lean into their protagonists’ inherent villainy, while also acknowledging how fascinating they are.)

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