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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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TIFF 2019: Jungleland, True History of the Kelly Gang

The trajectory of Charlie Hunnam’s career has been a fascinating one. I’ll admit to being unimpressed in the early years of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” the show that made him a star, but one can literally see his craft improve year to year over the run of that show. When it ended, it seemed like he could jump to mainstream blockbusters, but, for whatever reason, the MCU and other hit franchises either haven’t been of interest to him or haven’t come knocking on his door. And so he’s starred in a string of films by interesting auteurs, including two films by Guillermo del Toro, an underrated action pic by J.C. Chandor (“Triple Frontier”), and the best work of his career in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.” There’s something about his choices that fascinate me as a lot of these films, including two at this year’s TIFF, seem to be questioning issues of masculinity (even his misguided remake of “Papillon” does that too), and he seems to be increasingly capable and riveting. He’s arguably the best part of both of his TIFF '19 films, although it feels like not enough people will see either of them.

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The good news for fans is that the better of the two is the one in which Hunnam features more, Max Winkler’s “Jungleland,” a movie that takes a Bruce Springsteen song as its title and then delivers a movie that embraces melodrama and cliché not unlike a classic Boss song. The three characters that share most of the screen time in “Jungleland” are out of casting 101—the emotional boxer, his volatile brother, and the girl who gets between them—but Winkler and his cast lean into the familiarity so much that it’s easier to look past it and see the character work being done here.

Hunnam plays Stanley, a jittery loser who has pushed the boundaries of the law a few too many times, and even gotten his brother Lion (Jack O’Connell) banned from the world of traditional boxing. This means Lion has to fight in bare-knuckle brawls in dingy rooms, but Stanley is always there cheering him on (and betting on him, if possible). After a key fight goes very wrong, it looks like Stanley may have run out of ways to please the crime lord (Jonathan Majors) to whom he in debt, but he gets one more chance. Take a girl named Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country and deliver her to another villain on their way to a $100k fight in San Francisco. The boys soon realize they are basically agreeing to be human traffickers to save their souls, and things get even more complicated when Lion falls for Sky.

There’s an interesting parallel between Lion and Sky embedded in the narrative in that both are people who are being used for their bodies. She is a possession being handed from one criminal to another whereas Lion is being used for his fighting abilities by his brother. While that thematic parallel simmers under the surface, this is mostly a performance piece, particularly for Hunnam, who almost seems to be deconstructing his typically suave demeanor with something more twitchy and impulsive. It’s fascinating work. And even when the film doesn’t feel like it’s amounting to much, he keeps it humming.

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Sadly, I can’t the same for “True History of the Kelly Gang,” and it’s not only because Hunnam has a very small part. This is mostly George MacKay’s movie, who plays the adult version of the legendary Ned Kelly, one of the most infamous Australian outlaws of all time. Based on Peter Carey’s novel, “True History” is a somewhat daring approach to the biopic, a film that more charts the influences on Kelly than the actual deeds that made him famous. While that angle makes it thematically interesting, and there are strong performances in the ensemble, Mackay’s unconvincing in the crucial role, and the whole thing doesn’t feel like it adds to much as the promise to examine a legend through the world around him doesn’t pay off.

How does a renegade take shape? The first half of “True History,” subtitled “Boy,” is much stronger than the second, starring Orlando Schwerdt as the young Ned, son to Ellen, played by the excellent Essie Davis ("The Babadook"). They live in poverty on the edge of the outback, and Ellen is introduced being paid for sex with Hunnam’s military officer. The father figure in the Kelly family is meek and worthless to Ellen, and mocked by the locals, which means he is soon replaced by the vicious Harry Power (an excellent-but-brief Russell Crowe), a man who teaches Kelly even more about hating authority. The back half of the film details how these powerful figures in Kelly’s life influenced the young adult version of him, and co-stars Thomasin McKenzie and Nicholas Hoult.

Clearly, there are a lot of talented people involved in “True History,” and it fits snugly into director Justin Kurzel’s career examinations of violent masculinity in films like “Snowtown” and “Macbeth,” but it’s ultimately a shallow endeavor. Part of the problem is that the first half is notably stronger than the second, as MacKay can’t handle the character’s descent into near-madness and Hoult becomes a caricature. I admit that I was never bored during “True History,” and it’s a film I’m interested in seeing again outside of the chaos of the fest experience, but when Kelly said near the end, “Some people think I’m a hero and some people think I’m a murderer,” I realized he was perfectly capturing the film’s lack of viewpoint and depth. 

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