Ned Kelly is not only one of the most notorious outlaws in Australian history but up there with the like of Jessy James for international recognition, romanisation and vilification.

Based on Peter Carey’s 2000 Booker Prize winning novel True History Ned Kelly adapted by Shaun Grant, the film focuses on the relationship with his mother, and his downward spiral into criminality and tries to set a context for that. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on how close Grant sticks to that, and I’m not an expert on the Kelly Gang. Coming at this as film it’s a beautiful piece of work but some stylistic choices blur the essential thrust of the film.

Opening in 1867 Kelly’s formative years were brutal at the hands of his father Red (Ben Corbett) and so develops a close relation, almost dependence on his mother Ellen (Essie Davis). He’s essentially a boy then a man who knows life is going to be hard and just wants to be left to get on with it. Life just isn’t that fair though as he goes through.

Sold to a thief and murderer Harry Power (Russell Crowe) as a boy he gets his first experience of violence as Power takes him under his wing and teaches him the ways of the world as one of those annoying sage’s who dispenses rubbish wisdom. From there it into bare-knuckle boxing for sport, money and a semblance of fame at the pleasure of the ruling set. Returning to reacquaint himself with his now grown-up family, there’s tensions and his mother now has a young lover: It’s an uncomfortable reunion.

With pressures mounting on many sides Kelly’s is driven into banditry and madness. His relationship with his brothers coalesces in to the Kelly Gang and robbery and murder. Their notoriety rapidly spreads as they become more brazen, feral and stranger.

They wear dresses for attacks while forging armour for protection. Kelly (George MacKay) the undisputed leader, the alpha male bared chested and primal geeing up the gang in freezing temperatures. His loss of control is further compounded in a very strange meeting with teacher Thomas Curnow (Jacob -Collins-Levy) where his action and mannerisms confirm his madness.

Running parallel and occasionally barrelling into the story are the British or more precisely the British army and Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) in particular who are almost to a man portrayed as conniving, cruel and privileged. It’s not far removed from their portrayal in The Nightingale as does the general roughness of the terrain and coarseness language.

Split into three parts True Story of the Kelly Gang is a visual overload and at times confusing. Justin Kurzel makes ample use of the landscapes and close details as Kelly becomes obsessed with the Monitor – a US steel warship – using it as a model for his helmet design, which leads to some striking shots. Then there’s the chiaroscuro of the final confrontation between the gang and the troopers that is somewhat robbed of its affect by the strobing lights.

The visual intensity is matched by and large by the performances with MacKay and Davis scintillating: the former at times a curious testosterone fuelled drag artist, while Davis is far earthier having a steel grip on life and how to deal with. But they are very technical and don’t generate much of an emotional response and that, as beautiful as it is almost throughout, is the films great stumbling point.