In this distorted re-telling of Australia’s notorious 19th century outlaw Ned Kelly (based on the award-winning fiction book by Peter Carey) we are, right from the outset, informed that ‘Nothing you are about to see is true’. Which is just as well given the fact that Ned and his band of merry and trigger-happy young men are depicted as cross-dressing, eye-shadow wearing criminals who plot a violent campaign of anarchy that will terrorize the country. And macho-Aussies complained about Mick Jagger portraying Kelly!

The cross-dressing aspect (the real Ned Kelly would turn in his grave at the very thought!) is just one of the factual distortions in this highly unique and controversial re-imagining which tells the story of Australia’s most famous outlaw beginning with his childhood years. Perhaps it should be mentioned that in Carey’s book as well as in the film this ‘autobiographical’ story is written by Kelly to his fictional daughter.
Thus the movie begins with a very young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) witnessing the on-going English rule against the Irish, the verbal and physical abuse his thick-skinned mother Ellen (‘Miss Fisher’ Essie Davis, real-life wife of director Kurzel) has to endure, and the constant presence of dubious Sergeant O’ Neill (Charlie Hunnam).

Enter ‘saviour’ and mentor Harry Power (Russell Crowe looking just like the real-life bushranger did) who teaches Ellen’s kids profane anti-police songs and here is rumoured to be Ellen’s lover (which in real life he was not). Soon the young Ned witnesses the first brutal killing when Harry fires bullets into a man and asks Ned to finish the job. Subjected to class struggle and anti-Irish sentiments from childhood, Ned grows into a young man (George MacKay) and swears to put a stop to this: “We are stolen men in a stolen land and we are going to take back what is rightfully ours.”
Witness the birth of the (fictional) ‘Sons of Sieve’ – a cross-dressing Irish rebel group soon on the land’s ‘Most Wanted’ list as the gang of outlaws don’t shy away from crime and murder to take back what is rightfully theirs.

Along their doomed journey Ned Kelly falls in love with a girl called Mary (Thomasin McKenzie) who gives birth to a child, sees himself confronted with arch-enemy Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) who doesn’t even shy away from threatening to kill the Kelly’s new-born in order to find Ned’s hideout, culminating in the legendary blood ‘n’ guts stand-off against the law at Glenrowan, leading to Ned’s arrest and consequent execution by hanging in 1880.

Robin Hood-like folk hero to some, cold-blooded murderous villain to others… Ned Kelly as portrayed in Kurzel’s film is neither. Whilst George MacKay (why cast an English actor in the part of an Aussie outlaw?) does a solid job in his portrayal as the gender-bending anarchist we see in the movie, it doesn’t change the fact that this sexually ambiguous punk-rock take on the Kelly legend is more insult than ‘homage’. Admittedly, Ari Wegner’s cinematography is riveting (you need a big TV-screen to appreciate the many candle-lit indoor-scenes) and in particular the shoot-out at Glenrowan is presented here in a highly unique and almost stylised fashion, with strobe-light effects and jittery camera movements that highlight the Kelly gang’s makeshift armours. Purists are advised to stick with director Gregor Jordan’s 2003 take on the outlaw story in which the late Heath Ledger portrayed Ned Kelly to near perfection. That said, if you don’t mind bending factual history to almost 270 degrees then THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG may well be for you.