Producers: Hal Vogel, Liz Watts, Justin Kurzel and Paul Ranford   Director: Justin Kurzel   Screenplay: Shaun Grant   Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Ben Corbett, Josephine Blazier, Jacob Collins-Levy and Claudia Karvan   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B-

Nineteenth-century Australian outlaw and national folk hero Ned Kelly has been the subject of plenty of movies.  Mick Jagger played him in Tony Richardson’s 1970 effort, and Heath Ledger in Gregor Jackson’s 2003 one.  Going back to the dawn of cinematic history, Charles Tait’s “The Story of the Kelly Gang” (1906) is generally recognized as the first narrative feature-length film; though the original is lost, it is said to have run more than an hour, and has of course been the subject of reconstruction attempts.

Justin Kurzel’s new take on Kelly is hardly a conventional biopic: adapted from the celebrated 2000 novel by Peter Carey, it mixes fact with fiction—cheekily announcing the juxtaposition at the very start by warning “nothing you’re about to see is true” before erasing the first six words and expanding “true” into the title—but presents both with undeniable stylistic flair.  The result might not satisfy history buffs, but will certainly engage even their sensory faculties, as in the stunning opening shot of a rider, dressed in a bright red frock, traversing a stark, shattered landscape astride a white horse.

The film that follows is divided into three chapters, “Boy,” “Man” and “Monitor.” The first forty or so minutes focus on Ned’s youth, portraying him and his siblings living hardscrabble lives with battling parents “Red” (Ben Corbett) and Ellen (Essie Davis).  The former is a drunkard well past his prime, but his wife makes up for it—a formidable woman, she vents her Irish spleen against the upper-crust English, even berating Mrs. Shelton (Claudia Karvan), whose son young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) has saved from drowning, when she offers to pay for the boy’s education. Ellen also has caught the eye of handsome local lawman Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), one of the men she entertains while her husband looks gloomily on.  O’Neill also comes to the remote homestead when young Ned, assuming his father’s duty, hacks a leg off a neighbor’s cow for dinner and is hailed by Ellen for his virility.

That doesn’t stop her, though, from selling the boy to Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a bearlike but apparently gentle fellow who’s actually a notorious highwayman.  In an abrupt and violent turn, he not only introduces Ned to the ways of robbery but encourages him to humiliate O’Neill in a most brutal fashion. 

The second chapter sees Ned grown into a hunky young man (George MacKay), exhibiting his pugilistic skill for an audience of swells including local grandee Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult).  Fitzpatrick is impressed by Ned’s abilities and the two become close (with a distinct suggestion of erotic interest on Fitzpatrick’s part), but when the wealthy man seduces Ned’s sister Kate (Josephine Blazier) while consorting with other women and then threatens the irascible Ellen with a gun, Ned shoots him.  That makes Ned and his brother Dan (Earl Cave) wanted men.

It’s then that they join with friends Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) and Steve Hart (Lewis Hewison) to form what comes to be known as the Kelly gang, earning notoriety when they kill several policemen sent out to capture them.  They’re also embraced by lower-class settlers as Robin Hood figures after they give a portion of the loot from their robberies away.  Ned also finds a companion in Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie), though she’s already had a relationship with his stepfather George King (Marlon Williams); it’s she who encourages him to write his autobiography, which we see him scribbling away at periodically and becomes the foundation of his legend.

By now the gang has swelled to the size of a small army with the arrival of supporters from the locals, and Kelly adds to the women’s dresses the men have habitually worn as an insult to their victims handmade suits of bulletproof armor he’s confected by reference to the metal-hulled ships called monitors.  Their plan to derail a police train near Glenrowan, however, goes awry when they’re betrayed by schoolteacher Thomas Curnow (Jacob Collins-Levy).  Ned’s comrades are killed in the resultant assault, while he’s wounded and carted off to prison for execution.  He’s hanged after a final meeting with the indomitable Ellen, but the film closes with Curnow exulting before an assembly over the extermination of the gang—though its reputation as champions of the downtrodden has nonetheless endured for more than a century.

Carey’s book was an imaginative exercise mingling history and invention, and Shaun Grant’s adaptation follows suit.  Kurzel and his colleagues—cinematographer Ari Wegner, production designer Karen Murphy, costumer Alice Babidge, editor Nick Fenton and composer Jed Kurzel—seize on every opportunity to emphasize the poetic side.  This is a film bursting with vitality, visual extravagance, hectic camerawork, quick cutting and sudden chronological shifts; some might feel that it veers too far in that direction, preferring excess to linear clarity to the extent that those unfamiliar with Kelly’s life might well have difficulty in following what’s going on.  (The addition of punk rock and strobe lighting to some of the more extravagant sequences adds to the punch-drunk feel.)  But the effect, like that of Kurzel’s film of “Macbeth,” is certainly impressive—so much so that you can forgive him for the misstep that was “Assassin’s Creed.”

The cast give their all to realize Kurzel’s vision.  MacKay, who co-starred in “1917” and here looks a bit like Christian Bale, makes a physically imposing, larger-than-life Kelly, his posturing giving the character the legendary quality it needs; Schwerdt is equally impressive as his scrawnier younger incarnation, especially in the scenes with Power.  Among the others Davis cuts a powerful figure as the ferocious Ellen, who can suddenly shift from amiability to venom, while Crowe offers a cunningly understated turn as Ned’s mentor in the trade.  Hunnam is fine as the manly O’Neill, but it’s Hoult who proves truly memorable as the ruthless, smarmy Fitzpatrick, a man oozing with lust.  All the others add potent portraits to the overall mosaic.

One can debate whether Ned Kelly deserves the adulation Australians have so long accorded to him.  He was, after all, a pretty nasty fellow.  But of all the cinematic depictions of him, Kurzel’s flamboyant entry is the one most likely to stick with you.