The life of Ned Kelly as a boy, a man and an outlaw is captured in a film that opens with the line “Nothing you are about to see is true” but whether it is or not matters little when what is portrayed is riveting and essential.
Ned as a boy is shaped by three men and one strong woman instilling loyalty to family and a dislike of the constabulary alongside the backdrop of colonial oppression and a difficult unforgiving land. His father mostly absent in prison makes him despise dishonesty, Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) sows a dislike for the police through his abuse of power whilst Harry Power (Russell Crowe) cements that hatred with his life lessons. This section of the film is filled with striking performances, not least from Orlando Schwerdt, the young boy portraying Kelly in his early years.
When George MacKay enters the film as a now grown Ned its as a wiry bare knuckled boxer whose impact in the fight he’s preparing for is as powerful as the punches thrown. MacKay plays Kelly as a conflicted and confused man who stumbles into his notoriety. His relationships in this section of the film pivot around his best friend (and lover?) Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), a prostitute (and girlfriend) Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie) and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), a man who initially befriends him but whom he falls out of favour with.
Throughout all of these machinations is his mother, portrayed expertly by Essie Davis, a woman who uses men to survive, preaches loyalty to family above all but whom doesn’t necessarily follow what she teaches.
Linking the sections together Ned tells of his story from an otherworldly location. Fully aware that if you do not write your own, someone else will write it for you, linking us back to the question of what is the true history of the Kelly Gang.
The film is breathtakingly good. Visually it is striking with eerie vistas and candlelit scenes and it has a fantastic string led score. The violence, sexual proclivity and general squalor may make it a tough watch for some but it really underlines the difficulty of living in that time as an oppressed underclass. And underpinning it all is a cast where not one person puts a step wrong. An all round superb achievement.
One final disclaimer, this is based on the fictional novel of the same name by Peter Carey, so do not watch for historical accuracy. Do watch for its brilliance.