‘True History Of The Kelly Gang’: Justin Kurzel Celebrates Australian Outlaws In Bloodsoaked Period Thriller [TIFF Review]

The Playlist | 9/6/2019 | Charles Bramesco
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In his Vietnam War quasi-memoir “The Things We Carried,” writer Tim O’Brien posits the idea that a storyteller must exercise a measure of creative license to accurately capture the essence of history. He theorizes an “emotional truth,” a close relative of Werner Herzog’s so-called “ecstatic truth,” under which the account of events may be tampered with in order to more expressionistically replicate the experience of being there. Peter Carey subscribed to that very notion with his 2000 novel “True History of the Kelly Gang,” which freely rearranged the details surrounding 19th-century Australian bushranger Ned Kelly to mold his living self into the larger-than-life figure that his legacy suggests today. Carey ginned up a wife and a child, a letter to whom frames the text, to make immediately palpable what would only become clear in his subject’s posthumous future: the soul of Australian settler identity rested on Kelly’s broad Irish shoulders.

Justin Kurzel’s new film adaptation depicts the robber, raider, cop-killer, and general hellraiser in all the outlaw glory that posterity has assigned him. Kurzel’s prismatic view of Kelly’s life and times goes to gnarlier and more vivid places than superficially similar period pieces. First, however, we join Kelly as a timid little boy (Orlando Shwerdt) cowering before the lecherous brutes that come by to pay his mother (Essie Davis) to service them. The film will soon bear witness to the formative events that vulcanized him from a humble Point A to a heroic Point B, a life short enough for a biopic to comfortably cover the whole of its breadth.

Particulars - Evolution - Kelly - Adult - Years

But the particulars of that evolution, one that Kelly undergoes reluctantly until his adult years (in which George Mackay takes up the role), pose an interrogation to Kurzel and Carey’s own efforts at cultural mythmaking. Kelly’s auto-critical portraiture has more in common...
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