Back in 1970, Tony Richardson’s “Ned Kelly” hit upon a neat idea: What if you got an honest-to-God rock star, Mick Jagger, to play Australia’s most notorious 19th-century folk hero? A neat idea is all it was, though, and the listless, unconfidently acted movie that resulted was duly forgotten. Nearly half a century later, however, Justin Kurzel’s thrilling new take on the legend gives Kelly some glam-rock swagger without any need for stunt casting. Lithe and volatile and recklessly stylized to the hilt, “True History of the Kelly Gang” has moves like Jagger, but a head still teeming with language and history. Adapted from Peter Carey’s Man Booker-winning 2000 novel, Kurzel’s roughhousing, ripely acted interpretation does full justice to the book’s rugged dirt-poetry vernacular and rich biographical particulars, while staging Kelly’s criminal rise and fall as a vision all its own: a wildly gyrating sensory assault of blood, velvet and strobe lights.
In its brooding tonal menace and the brute beauty of its aesthetic, the result is very much of a piece with Kurzel’s first two films, 2011’s severe true-crime story “The Snowtown Murders” and 2015’s ambient, cut-to-the-bone “Macbeth” — and a welcome career reset after the game-over muddle of 2016’s tortured “Assassin’s Creed.”
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Just as the director’s Shakespeare adaptation split audiences with its visceral, text-shredding expressionism, his roaring, head-butting approach to “True History of the Kelly Gang” won’t be for everyone. Still, most can surely agree it’s a corrective to the more blandly gung-ho biopic stylings of 2003’s Heath Ledger-starring “Ned Kelly,” which pitched the bushwhacking, cop-killing outlaw as little more than a twinkle-eyed rogue; Kurzel’s film considers his madness and morality, and grants him a harder-won dignity.
A soaring, dreamy aerial shot at the outset sets the tone for what is to come, as Ari Wegner’s camera picks out a scarlet-clad Kelly, bolting on horseback through scorched snarls of charcoal trees, like a dribble of blood streaking its way across the land. For a second, the vista looks Leanian in its splendor, until the full ruin of the landscape sinks in, along with the torn eccentricity of Kelly’s outfit: a woman’s chiffon gown with the color and sweep of a military redcoat. Kurzel will repeatedly undercut the ennobling grandeur of epic filmmaking with such disorienting details and disconnects. This Kelly is a curious, intractable figure from the off, when he’s played as a youth by mesmerizingly off-kilter newcomer Orlando Schwerdt; that alien quality remains even as he grows into the more buff, conventionally commanding form of George Mackay.
Where Carey’s novel was in 13 sections, screenwriter Shaun Grant (“The Snowtown Murders,” “Berlin Syndrome”) has opted for just three — “Boy,” “Man,” “Monitor” — of increasing atmospheric derangement. The first is the plottiest, establishing the young Kelly’s complex family loyalties and the burnt-in origins of his anti-authoritarian spirit. His Irish father Red (Ben Corbett) is tormented to the grave by less-than-upstanding lawman Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam); 12-year-old Ned inherits the grudge. His mother Ellen (Essie Davis) is a hard, proud matriarch, whose wounded love for her late husband is perhaps too intensely carried over to her eldest son; as he grows into adulthood, she both demands his loyalty and shames his ambition. In a film boasting several tremendous performances, a virulently seething Davis gives the best of them: Wheedly-voiced one minute, coldly torrential the next, her Ellen is a mercurial knot of grief, rage and sex, darkening and corrupting Kelly’s family-first revenge mission even from a distance.
After an education in the laws of the wild — and the way of the gun — from loose-cannon bushranger Harry Power (a wonderfully grizzled, gamy Russell Crowe), Kelly resolves to defend and elevate his stained family name the violent way. Forming the eponymous Gang with his young brother Dan (Earl Cave) and two nothing-to-lose friends, he also encounters a new colonial nemesis in Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), a tart, cruel police constable who seduces Kelly’s sister Kate (Josephine Blazier) — and seemingly, in one extraordinary dialogue scene prickling with queer, witching-hour energy, Kelly himself.
Hoult, leering and louchely authorative even when clothed in nothing but sock suspenders, is easily the best he’s ever been; the passive-aggressive erotic chemistry between him and Mackay’s brash, combustible adult Kelly lends Kurzel’s film a most unexpected sensuality even as it tumbles into all-guns-blazing action. Yet the closer the storytelling veers to straight-up genre thrills, the more operatic and expressionistic the filmmaking gets.
The famous climactic shootout at Glenrowan is envisioned, rather like the final battle in Kurzel’s “Macbeth,” as a fevered nightmare sequence with little sense of spatial reality. This time, however, the screen isn’t saturated in chemical orange, but multiply pierced with white-hot beams as bullets penetrate the darkness of Kelly’s hideout, building to a near seizure-inducing lightshow. It’s the high-impact pièce de résistance in Wegner’s otherwise earthy, blood-and-mud-smeared view of the lawless Outback, which never quite gives in to postcard panoramas: Even the sky has an angry, bilious tint throughout.
The film’s world-building is at once utterly immersive and given to striking stabs of artifice. Alice Babidge’s freely era-mixing costumes, in particular, are nothing short of ingenious, often binding Kelly in tight, androgynous silhouettes that give him a lanky frontman strut, and that’s before he discovers the enemy-startling powers of genderqueer battle garb. In “True History of the Kelly Gang,” black lace takes on the strength and solidity of armor, and one of history’s most celebrated outlaws finally gets the film he deserves: one that grants him both macho magnetism and the deep, abiding strangeness on which a lasting cult is built. “Write your own history, for you are my future now,” Kelly’s voiceover instructs his daughter toward the film’s close; Kurzel’s spellbinding if not-so-true history takes the same advice.