‘True Story of the Kelly Gang’ – my review

I finally decided I should see this movie for myself, though as most will know I had already expressed a view, based on what most others in Kelly world circles have said about it, that I might not. Aidan Phelan on A Guide to Australian Bushrangers had excoriated the movie in quite a relentless way, decrying everything in it from the dialogue to the editing. His partner at An Outlaws Journal wrote that “The whole thing is offensive, grotesque and uncomfortable to watch. It’s apparent to me that this was the director’s juvenile attempt, among other things, to lash out at ‘masculinity’. And doing so in this way is nothing short of cowardice.” She then recommended that nobody go and see it. At “Such is Life: the Ned Kelly Story” the reviewer wrote “for the most part, you sit and wonder what is actually going on! From the script to the set, to the costuming to the cinematography.”


Typical Facebook comments were things like this :


Don’t bother writing a review (with all due respect) we who follow the Kelly saga know that this film should never have been released.”


“The reviews lve seen and exactly what l thought… pure shit..”


“What is this absolute rubbish? They have to be kidding…..they are aren’t they? OMG”


“I will be watching but only so when I give my review on this garbage it will be fact”


Actual movie critics both loved and hated it:


A near-incoherent ensemble piece that squanders an enviable cast, it’s the latest in a long line of films to take aim at Ned Kelly, only to glance off his armour, barely leaving a mark.”


“Post-modern deconstructionist expressionistic anachronistic elliptical storytelling is my jam, and Justin Kurzel’s fourth feature is full of it. This is a feast for the senses, a gloriously indulgent examination of myth-making.”



So, as it was a wet Friday night and I was bored with the tennis, I paid my subscription to Stan, connected my Laptop to the Big Screen TV and clicked Go. Several reviews had mentioned it started with a sex scene between Mrs Kelly and a policeman – but no it started with a hypnotic throbbing soundtrack, a voiceover of Ned addressing his daughter about truth and fiction, and an aerial shot of a white horse galloping furiously across a dried swamp in a vast forest of blackened dead trees, the riders red dress flowing out behind. The scene was almost alien, the mood heavy and apprehensive as the jagged angles of the darkly forbidding Kelly shanty came into view below, clothes flapping on the line as the camera descended towards a slit-like window, tension rising about what fright we might be about to see inside.


It was intense and mesmerizing – not what I had been expecting – and I barely moved again until the End credits began to roll. And in the morning, I watched it all again – it really is that good!



The thing that amazed me about this film is that it refers in some way or other to almost  everything you’ve ever heard in the Kelly stories , all the memes and the rumours and tales are there, flashing past sometimes so fast you’ll miss them if you blink. If you only had a passing knowledge of the Kelly stories you would probably miss much of it, but there are no one-dimensional characters, and the stories are not presented as the same tired old versions of Kelly myths – you have to watch and listen closely to recognise them in thier reimagined form. I loved the fact that George Mackay, the adult Ned, had the smoothest most hairless and innocent face you could ever imagine, and yet looking as unlike Ned Kelly as any man could be, he was compelling and brilliant.  This is a journey I find  exhilarating to be taken on, like viewing a building from a side that’s never photographed and then suddenly realising what it is that you’re looking at.



The movie tells the Kelly stories in an imaginative and wildly new way – complicated, crazy, confronting, impossible, thought provoking, and mixed about. Its dramatic, violent, tragic, sad, vulgar and rough and yet mostly believable and certainly recognizable as the Kelly story in an utterly compelling way – but not as we know it.   It’s like someone taking a piece of paper and folding it into a humpback whale instead of a swan.



And at that point, because it doesn’t conform to what the Kelly devotees want it to, seeing it all reinterpreted, they block their ears and shut their eyes and start crying ‘blasphemy’! The irony of course is that their own preferred versions are also largely fictional, made-up versions of the true story that they cling to rigidly like fundamentalists, intolerant of another version or any challenge to their own.


The truth about this movie, which Kelly devotees seem to have missed because of their indignant response to the story not being told the way they like it, is that it is highly sympathetic to Ned Kelly. The young Ned is brilliantly played as a beautiful and morally sensitive but wise young boy who resists the pressure of poverty and parentage to yield to criminality and brutality. He saves Dick Shelton – but steals jewellery from his mother – and demonstrates a higher loyalty to his family by slaughtering a neighbour’s cow – but confesses to police to having done so. Ultimately though, he is broken down by the horrors around him, the things he’s forced to witness and to do, the betrayals he endures, and he gradually descends into the abyss, into madness and murder, the perfect Greek tragedy. This was the plot that Aidan Phelan seems to have missed: according to him: “The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation”. No, it’s the essence of the Kelly myth, expressed by Kelly himself, that police drive men to madness.


I was going to write that everyone interested in the Kelly story ought to see this film, but it’s not for everyone, because not everyone finds it entertaining to have their closed minds challenged. But for those who do, this film doesn’t disappoint. Its incredibly entertaining.

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28 Replies to “‘True Story of the Kelly Gang’ – my review”

  1. Peter Newman says: Reply

    You surprise me David!

    1. No, seriously Peter – and Stuart – I really DID enjoy it and I DID watch it twice!

      Didnt you think that young boy playing Ned was brilliant? It was such a great portrayal of the struggle he went through as his innocence was being undermined, and he gradually succumbed. I also really liked the Ellen character , amazing acting, and for example the scene where Mrs Shelton came to offer Ned a free education in an elite school, that working class poor resentment of the rich being disguised as love of family, the put-down and contempt she showed of the materialist values of the rich as against the better human values of the poor – a kind of reverse snobbery – of loyalty to family being her reason to refuse the offer, and then that taunt, exposing the stolen necklace to see if Mrs Shelton would react — and then of course Ellen went and sold Ned to Harry, showing the shallowness and the hypocrisy of her claims about family values and keeping her son close. Or maybe the desperation of poverty over rules every other morality…

      Great existentialist dilemmas…

      The Fitzpatrick assault scene was incredibly tense and the Fitzpatrick dialogue amazing…and Ned once again being humiliated because he wouldn’t shoot ….and so finally he did, at Stringybark.

      I hardly saw the dresses t be honest – they didnt register with me, I accepted the idea that they were designed to make them appear crazy to the police and therefore more feared. I didnt see it as cross dressing or anything sexual, it was a costume, and maybe the Armour was another. I did also enjoy the idea that the armour came from the armoured American ship the Monitor, maybe because as a kid I was fascinated by the Monitor and the Merrimac and all those ironclad gunships they had in the Civil War ( On my one trip to the USA – in 2016 – I visited the restored wreck of one of those ships, the USS Cairo at Vicksburg on the Mississippi, the site of a famous battle where the Union broke through Confederate lines using these ships and began an ultimately successful siege of Vicksburg, …Sharon would know more!)

      Yes the end was mad and chaotic and strobe lit and bloody but I think thats how it actually was, in some senses at least – by then I think the actual Ned Kelly was so consumed by the desire for revenge to the point of being out of touch with reality, which is what madness is. Even Ian Jones said Glenrowan was madness ( without the republic to make sense of it of course !!! ) So the confusion and tunnel vision of the helmet was what it had all reduced to.

      The hanging scene didnt touch me much. I think I had stopped caring about Ned by then – the winning innocent boy was long gone. And the mother exposed as desperate and duplicitous…

      So yes Stuart I think the movie used the Carey novel as a source and wasn’t at all a film version of it. I remember the Novel as being quite tender in many places…

  2. Me too! I never pictured you as someone with a bent for noisy post-punk artistic endeavours! I can’t say I recall anything of a Greek tragic approach in Carey’s book, so would you say that the film is more of an interpretation of Carey’s book rather than a film version of it? That would be legitimate artistically, but it would not be “Carey’s book”. Especially stuff like the attack on the police at SBC in ball gowns; to me that’s not Carey at all. And did you really watch it twice? I’d have gone back to the tennis given the choice…

  3. Interesting review David, and I would agree that the film is entertaining, and I think also innovative stylistically.
    Apparently it’s a huge hit on Stan!
    I would almost go as far as to say that the post expressionist punkish flavour says more about the madness and recklessness of the Kelly story, more than a documentary or traditional movie style.

    1. Ken, having read the reviews on Rotten Tomato’s and IMDB, I doubt if it will do anything on STAN.
      Just about all the comments rubbish the film. Here are a few comments.
      “A near-incoherent ensemble piece that squanders an enviable cast”
      “fact-checking has no place in this inventively loopy psychodrama.”
      “A shallow endeavor.”
      “Grow up Peter Carey. Crap story crap villains in the Kelly Gang. Should have all been executed sooner and shorten this slow motion train wreck of a film.”
      “Don’t waste your time! This movie is slow and borin”
      “Not much to recommend it. ”
      I am yet to see it, but I have no doubt that my view will reflect the above comments, having seen the promo videos.

      1. Sam I havent gone back to check but I think Rotten Tomatoes gave it quite a high rating.

        I also think this movie will help our cause because even though it portrays police as sinister individuals, it most certainly doesn’t glorify Ned or the Kellys.

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    David – you say “this movie will help our cause”….please explain? What is the “cause”?
    If I choose to comment on here am I signing up to a “cause”?
    However if you mean that you are pursuing the true Kelly story then maybe I can understand this.

    1. Our ’cause’ – for anyone who supports what ought to be obvious is the purpose of this Blog – is the exposure of false narratives claiming to be the truth about the Kelly story, and the promotion of actual demonstrable historical truth. So yes youre correct, it means we are pursuing the true Kelly story.

      This movie will help because it promotes a version of Ned Kelly and his origins thats a long way from the treacle sweet rubbish shown on the Last Outlaw and in children’s story books, and so might make people who see it think again about who Ned Kelly really was. This likelihood would be part of the. reason that Kelly devotees hate it so much and dont want you to see it .

      1. Bill Collins says: Reply

        It’s very sad, David, that even a film review and subsequent commentary has to include barbed comments towards, I assume, Kelly sympathisers or to those whose views you disagree with. You are kidding yourself if you think this latest film is somehow helping your view of the story and how it should be interpreted. A very long bow to draw. Why aren’t you tearing this latest film apart just like you’ve done with everybody else’s work?

        1. Thanks Bill, but what I think you ought to be really sad about is that in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary there are still people who adore a psychopath and multiple murderer.

          The idea that this movie might harm the Kelly myth makers cause has been voiced by some of the myth-makers themselves on Facebook posts that I have seen. So maybe they too are drawing a long bow….or maybe its not as unrealistic a prospect as you imagine Bill.

          As for not tearing this film apart – well it doesnt claim to be true so what is the point of disputing things in it that aren’t true, or make no sense to people who are trying to make out that its supposed to be ‘true’? Its art and nothing is ‘wrong’ about art – you just either like it or not.

          My review is an explanation of why I like it. Others have explained why they don’t.

          1. Margaret the Pom says: Reply

            It’s great, David, that you have put up an enthusiastic and positive review of this film and like you said, it is highly sympathetic to Ned Kelly. It’s a shame some of the louder and less cultivated sympathisers poo-poo both the film and your review. They are clearly talentless oafs, unappreciative of higher levels of art that have earned high scores from Rotten Tomatoes and other critic’s sites. I think you are right that it brings a new level of interest and excitement to commentary about Ned Kelly. It gets away from the simple minded dated bias of the Last Outlaw drivel that was not at all historically accurate. At least this move says up front that nothing in it is true. Much like some of the dribbling Kelly sympathisers ramblings. Say no more!

        2. Bill your ‘opinion’ is just plain goofy and negative. David is enormously positive about many things – including my humble book “The Kelly Gang Unmasked”; Bill Denheld’s obviously correct Police camp at SBC, and many other things.

          But the bigger picture is one of remorseless, bitter animosity from a small group of modern Kelly freaks who have attacked David since 2012. Eight years later these slackos are still at it.

          How about giving them a ‘tearing this’ serve too?

          Ian MacFarlane

          1. They are too thick and ignorant to oppose or discuss David’s arguments with historical evidence so they abuse and insult him anonymously from the shadows. I had no idea that “Dee” was really someone named David for the first 4 or more years that I looked at and occasionally contributed comments to this blog. This blog has been very good and useful for testing out ideas on different topics over time, especially when developing the Glenrowan timeline, and on many other topics as well. And also for getting ideas from other constructive contributors that are interesting or different or challenging or otherwise worth thinking about. The brainless anonymous spam artists are nobodies who should be on Twitter or somewhere else. I don’t see why any of their nothing comments ever get posted. It is a waste of good internet space.

  5. “A waste of good internet space” That made me laugh!

    But I think we should probably try harder to ignore the blind fanatics, and think of our constituency as people with an open mind genuinely interested in understanding the truth about the Outbreak,. We should direct our energies to informing them and ignore the others because they are never going to do anything other than repeat the Kelly catechism and respond to challenges with abuse – of which Ive had an enormous amount, as have Ian and Stuart and Bill. On Facebook in the last few days yet another Kelly relative has emerged from the woodwork and posted more outrageous lies about me – now deleted – but I doubt it will ever cease.

    Having said that I think exposing themselves as ignorant bullies , Kelly fanatics do themselves no favours.

  6. Hi David, I think there are basically two Kelly narratives. The increasingly exposed as shonky and error-filled Ian Jones one that has had most people with just a passing interest sucked in for the last 50 years or so, and the more fragmentary historical corrections that have been building up over the past 15 or more years but are not synthesised.

    Jones was a masterful story teller, but his story is built on two main pillars. The first is Kenneally’s 1929 Inner History with its highly skewed and selectively quoted Royal Commission report. It reads fairly well – as Kenneally was a journalist and could write well in a popular style – but it is laughably one-eyed and had no access to the VPRO records which paint a very different picture. Kenneally looks accurate because he quotes evidence; but he only quotes the parts he wants you to see. Once you get beyond that into the archives and newspapers you see how full of holes and biases his story is. Plus he relied on quite a lot of oral history, chunks of which are easily disproved by the records of the day. His Billy-Jimmies rubbish at the start of the book is the first of many such tales. Jones was steered by Kenneally not just in approach and attitude, but in method as regards the selective presentation of evidence to push a narrative and the leaving out or active dismissal of evidence that contradicted it, plus the habit of hostile abuse and aggression to anyone who disagreed with him.

    Second, Jones formed his “New view” of Kelly in 1967 and stuck with it ever since. Having built a fantasy of Bad Fitzpatrick, Irish republican rebels, persecuted Kellys, biased courts, perjuring police, etc, he spent the next several decades explaining or away or outright rejecting anything including actual source evidence that didn’t fit his narrative. Because it is masterfully told it seems plausible; but it is full of holes as a colander, and gradually being exposed as such.

    People who want to understand history have to be willing to look at writers critically. Kelly history has been written by enthusiastic amateurs for the last 100 years, but more careful research inevitably exposes its weaknesses. There is still a long way to go before a modern True History of the Kelly Gang is written; but I have to agree with you that the Kurzel movie is as true as much else that is out there! If you ever get a chance to see Ben Head’s Stringybark movie, you will be rapt with how true a representation of history can be,

    1. Stuart, I’m not for a moment disagreeing with any of your comment. But I’ve never seen an Ian Jones CV. As you say, “Jones was a masterful story teller” in video; in person and on TV current affairs. Maybe he had some sort of tertiary qual – unlikely – but not entirely impossible…

      I couldn’t be critical of him here myself but for Ian Jones’s rotten criticism of dead Alex Castle’s ‘Ned Kelly’s Last Days’ book. That author being carked could not respond to Ian, regretably, just as Ian can no longer respond to us nowadays.

      I found Ian Jones’s two Kelly books wanting, when writing my own book. His books posed serious impediments because of endless mistakes and strange pro-Kelly slants.

      Ian MacFarlane

  7. Bill Denheld says: Reply

    Oh David, Carla and I saw the film on big screen. We think it was the most misconstrued film of any we have ever seen. Your favorable review of this rotten film does not surprise as it will inevitably denigrate any public understanding of any real events pertaining to political background that’s never discussed on anti Kelly forums. This is probably because to so exposes personal beliefs into the public domain. For that reason many generations have learned to ‘Say Nothing* to protect themselves from social persecution.

    Look at how they have treated Stringy Bark Creek? Look at how they are allowed to misrepresent a historically important part of our history ‘as a big joke’. That film was designed by money men to kill off any resemblance of truth and fact. The same sort of joke happened with the making of that Lawless Adam Ford show supposedly a ‘documentary’, where hundreds of thousands of taxpayers moneys was used, so long as true history would not be told. (As told to me by people in the arts film industry).

    They can spent $ truck $ loads $ and openly distort true history to dubious locations because- they can, and you can’t get in the way of a pot of money.

    When Sergeant Kennedy and his police party went out to get the Kellys it was not about justice at all, but rather the reward monies offered by people with vested interests. They were in the pockets of the authoritive elite, it was all about killing off any opposition to the squitocracy who had in principle taken over a legal government. The Kelly outbreak was nothing more than a large portion of disgruntled struggling settlers all over the North East of Vic against a power base established in Collins Street- the political head quarters – the Melbourne Club of the 1870s.

    * I see there is a new book out on northern Irish history by that name.

    1. Bill, surely the film is aiming to be “misconstrued” and disturbing for its viewers, you are actually endorsing its meaning by your reactive comments. Remember the Dadaist’s and the their degenerate followers, perhaps this film is right for its time but is dangerous and shocking, not very likeable.

      Statements like “Denigrate understanding of the story” “Say Nothing” “Social Persecution”, are similar to some of the Kelly descendants comments in papers and online, like the team of ghost writer sympathisers they have also had the same old offensive reactions as yourself here. Perhaps it’s an Irish thing or a defence from the hurt of social persecution in people’s ancestral past? Maybe trying to protect a sacred and iconic story from sacrilege or defacement. Who knows but it’s certainly a highly emotional subject.

      But what do they say……what’s worse than getting talked about (not getting talked about). Whilst the film is out there it creates another level of interest and debate…..I would say that this is great for the Kelly story!

      Bring on the new batch of writers, film directors and historians who will want to discover now the ‘real’ Kelly story.

      Sorry I’m tired of old fuddy duddy type comments, let’s have Ned Kelly for the 21st Century!


  8. Bill I think you’re taking the movie too seriously! Its based on a novel which is itself a long way from being the true story! Do you like the Nolan Kelly series paintings? Theyre full of errors too.

    But dont you agree it was very sympathetic towards Ned? I thought you would at least have enjoyed the portrayal of policemen as arseholes?

    Regarding the Lawless documentary are you sure it was funded by taxpayers? I would have though it was funded from private sources. And one other thing : we can discuss ‘political backgrounds’ here if you want to, any time.

  9. Just noting that the Kurzel film got some taxpayer film funding too if I remember the credits right. David, if you have it on Stan you could possibly check before your viewing time ends. Carey gets a wad of government money too, in writer’s grants and public lending rights for various works. Nice work if you can get it.
    Ian, there is a cv of sorts for Jonesy on Wikipedia, or at least a list of his writing and directing projects.
    Meanwhile all of us trying to discover real history and what actually happened get no funding from anyone. But we are forged of tougher stuff than half suit armour, and truth will eventually prevail over decades of mindless nonsense!
    On a different note, was Kurzel implying that a particular one of the Kelly gang was trans?

  10. Bill Denheld, whom I admire and hold in very high regard (and Carla too), is a long-time supporter of the Kelly Gang.

    I have never been able to comprehend why the Kelly Crowd of supporters are so negative towards him. It is something to do with his Police camp site at SBC they don’t like. But why would it matter to them exactly where the Police murders took place?

    It matters to Bill. It matters to us.

    Since NONE of the other police camp sites – EXCEPT Bill’s – have the exact Burman photo slope in the background, what are we to make of the endless criticisms of Bill ?

    Not one thing! Nothing!

    Ian MacFarlane

  11. Sharon Hollingsworth says: Reply

    Dee/David, that is an excellent review of the film. I knew that you would more than likely enjoy it. Will be a while before I am able to see it.  I see where I am name-checked regarding the American Civil War. I know a little about the Siege of Vicksburg, especially from the civilian point of view due to a diary kept by a woman who was there for the duration. Amazing stuff, why that has never been portrayed in a film, especially the digging of caves into the hillsides for people to live in to avoid the daily bombardment for months on end, is beyond me. Not to mention the deprivation, starvation, the best and the worst of human nature being exposed, etc. Let us pray we never have to find ourselves in such circumstances. The USS Monitor of which you spoke sank off the coast of North Carolina, so that is something I have always heard about.  Also, many years ago, Chuck and I had gone to see the remains of the CSS Neuse (an ironclad) at Kinston, North Carolina. At the time it was just the remains of the ship sitting in a clearing in the woods but now the remains are inside and there is a full on interpretative museum and a full sized replica of it has been made, but we have not been to see any of it yet. Another thing, in some of the comments you had asked people to stay on topic, but I have seen times at many forums where we all have veered off the path and had seemingly unrelated conversations but those usually looped back around to the original topic and many times some new interesting information came to light on many subjects due to the friendly meandering banter. So, please don’t try to put a cork in (except for the time wasting haters). Also, it builds an all important esprit de corps.  As for me, I always figured that I had special dispensation to weigh in with anything I wanted due to being considered value added as well as being “friends with the owner.”  Also, while I have everyone’s attention, thanks to those who have shared the hidden behind paywall articles with us. Also, I agree with Ian MacFarlane, Bill and Carla Denheld are wonderful, generous, and kind people that have been very unfairly treated (as have so many others of us). Nothing we can do except endure to the end!

    1. Anonymous says: Reply

      Hi Sharon, Herewith a couple of URLs (of 74) for my website Defending Victoria, which mentions several US ships including USS Monitor. Cerberus was a monitor, later deliberately wrecked here. The Preservation plan is to fill her with concrete! I am one of many who have striven to have her preserved. But my efforts were minor compared to those of John Rogers who won funding but with skirmishes on all sides:


        1. Those CSS Neuse websites seem excellent and very professional Sharon.

          The efforts on behalf of Cerberus have been exemplary but I sometimes feel Australian governments are too young to realise that history is fundemental to Statehood or Nationhood. When Cerberus rusts and disappears future generations are robbed forever.

          Ian MacFarlane

  12. Sharon Hollingsworth says: Reply

    Ian, I had heard of the Cerebus many years ago due to a webpage online about it and Ned Kelly. http://cerberus.com.au/ned_kelly.html I had never followed up on any further information on it, so your site was very helpful. I do remember going to your site many eons ago to read about the Kelly connection to the Rupertswood Battery. And, I see you have the Shenandoah there. It also has Kelly connections which I enumerated in a blog post a while back. Yes, everything must tie in to the Kellys! 😉 

    1. It’s the ironclad connection….

  13. Lots of hits here, David! You’re doing something right!


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