True History Of The Kelly Gang
I have a very clear memory of 17 year-old NFB, working very hard to avoid eye contact with the rest of the crowded English revision grind classroom, becoming mortified when it became clear he was the only one in the room that included on his Leaving Cert syllabus Peter Carey’s novel True History Of The Kelly Gang. Chalk it up to my own schools well-meaning English teacher, who thought that doing one of the niche publications of that year would pay dividends, when everyone else went for Pride and Prejudice. While the rest of the grinds class spoke, at length, about their more popular works, I was left to sit quietly by a teacher who had two hours to cover an entire syllabus, and was damned if she was going to waste her time on one literary freak.
But my embarrassment was far more to do with the pretty girl sitting in the next chair who looked at me funny, and not so much with the actual book, a text that, if I had the means and the verve back then, I would have been happy to talk to her at length about if she wanted to hear it (though I doubt it somehow). Peter Carey’s book is a truly unique thing: part history, part fictionalised memoir, part cultural expose. Written in a vernacular style, it’s an intriguing account of Ned Kelly’s life and times, but one that I would worry was largely unfilmable because of that style, which would be so hard to replicate on-screen. And I’ll be honest with you: as much as I loved Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, his last film, the truly ghastly Assassin’s Creed, does not inspire confidence with his adaptations of unlikely source material. Was it a case of inspiration skipping a film, or was his True History… better left to the page?
Australia in the late 19th century: the Kelly family ekes out a meagre existence in the badlands, where corrupt “copper” O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) harasses mother Ellen (Essie Davis) and enrages eldest son Ned (Orlando Schwerdt). Ned grows into an angry and restless young man (George McKay), and, after a series of provocations, forms a gang with his brother and friends, undertaking anarchic robberies and attacks across the territory, that cross the line from criminality into insurrection.
Ned Kelly the historical figure is someone that I have often perceived as being all things to all men, depending on what they want him to be: a brutal criminal, a romantic hero, an Australian Robin Hood, an anti-government anarchist, a socialist revolutionary, an Irish nationalist, and some manner of misunderstood genius. Was he all of them, or was he any of them? Kurzel, more intimately familiar with the legacy of Kelly as an Australian, takes on Carey’s novel and Kelly himself in the prism of that that question and runs with it, opening with a very interesting foreword: “Nothing you are about to see is true”. From the off the director throws up his hands at any accusations of bad history, and then takes us on a journey where a key theme is the lack of control those at the bottom of society have over their own remembrance. One cannot help but think of Hamilton: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory, you have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story”.
Kurzel’s attempt at that story is one that is sure to enrage many, from those who would put Kelly on the pedestal of a national hero, to those who would rather he be remembered solely as a hanged murderer of police. How could they not, in this story that mixes themes of Oedipal-like relationships with heapings of homoeroticism, cross-dressing and indications that Kelly himself is a man closer to Heath Ledger’s Joker than some kind of iconic paragon, at least in terms of mental health. But not me. I found this a fascinating approach to both Kelly the man and Carey’s book about him: hitting all of road-marks in Ned Kelly’s life, but giving them a certain explosiveness in approach and in the telling. I wouldn’t say it completely captures what the book was trying to get across, adding much in terms of of the visual specifically that Carey did not intend, but a dry re-telling of the book is not what this story called for.
If the real Kelly was a man for all seasons, McKay’s Kelly is similarly multifaceted. We meet him as a frustrated child and watch him grow into a frustrated man. He aches to do something about his status, but lacks the means to do so. He’s reserved, quiet, yet prone to fits of loud, often violent, mania. He’s clearly smart, but contains an emotional maelstrom inside of himself that threatens any endevour he may plan. He loves to show off his body, contorting strangely at different points, sometimes while a punk-rock soundtrack booms in the background or a union jack is encompassing the screen behind. He’s altogether odd, but fascinating. McKay’s performance is great, an excellent follow-on from his work in 1917, managing to say an awful lot while actually speaking very little: he makes this legendary outlaw appear fundamentally human.
A large part of that effort is the language of the film. Carey’s book was written in a basic style, reflecting the few bits of Kelly’s actual writings that survived. It lacked punctuation and proper grammar, and included plenty of vulgarity. Showing that on the big screen was a difficult task, but Kurzel accomplishes it: the script, written by Shaun Grant, maintains the low-born nature of much of the dialogue without it becoming incomprehensible, and is able to get across the normalcy of vulgarity in order to prevent it from being tawdry to our ears. A ridiculous song such by Russell Crowe early on, and McKay later, that draws attention to the first syllable of “Constable”, makes the point, used for affectionate humour in the first act, and deadly peril in the third, without ever feeling like a titillation or swing for edginess.
A human like Ned is formed by the people who influence him, chief among them his mother Ellen. Aside from drilling family loyalty and a hard-working attitude into Ned, there are numerous, often very uncomfortable, instances of intimate physical contact between the two, to the extent that a warped version of sexuality mixing with maternal bond must be an inevitable result. Davis’ Ellen is a fierce woman with a power far beyond her lowly station, and whose manipulation of Ned could mark her to some as the outlaw’s key mentor, and to others as the film’s chief villain: one must think of Lady Macbeth and the kind of manipulation Kurzel showcased earlier in his career.
Her priorities are certainly a bit skewed, as she declares her belief that the measure of a mother is how willing her child is to die for her, when she isn’t spooning Ned, kissing him in a fundamentally non-maternal manner or directly telling him that he must “become a man” and replace his father (which amounts to violent action without a political goal, an underestimation of Ned’s talents). This unsettling sexually charged nature is present in so much of True History…, perhaps enough that the film’s treatment of female characters should be challenged: a nude scene featuring 19-year-old Thomasin Mackenzie, fresh off of playing a 16-year-old in Jojo Rabbit, is particularly needless. The aforementioned homoeroticism is a similar insert, hinted at in broad strokes without ever being directly confronted: I preferred the kind of approach Tolkien took on such matters (also starring Nicholas Hoult).
In combination with a few other factors, like an apprenticeship with bushranging legend Harry Power (a truly excellent foul-mouthed Russell Crowe, revelling in an unorthodox role), incarceration in Australia’s brutal prison system, brushes with militant cross-dressing through the “Sons of Sieve” (a secret society of Irish rebels akin to the Whiteboys, fighting back against the hated English, wearing dresses to appear crazy), relationship with prostitute Mary (MacKenzie), and what can only be described as a “close” relationship with friend Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), we get the Ned of fame: an angry, messed-up bushwhacker whose activities go beyond robbing banks and into the realm of political rebellion. People rise to oppose him – Charlie Hunnam’s lecherous O’Neil when Ned is a boy, Nicholas Hoult’s obsessive FitzGerald when he’s older – but his true enemy is Australian colonial society, dominated by an English Protestant class with a penchant for gobbling up the best of the underclass and dismissing the rest. That, and his own anger, a toxic masculinity that demands he be a hunter, provider, renegade and womaniser, before society decides to tear him down for the same, and then altering his very essence in its remembrance.
That last point is crucial to the film’s key message. Nothing is true in this story, precisely because it is a story, one that has been warped and torn and twisted around a lot since the 1870’s. As late as the film’s final shots, revolving around Kelly’s more-than-likely fictitious last words, the point is made, that a man is never in full control of his own story or how it will be told: others will always change it to their own benefit, whether it is a school teacher out to make a name for themselves, or a society happy to create a romantic figure that otherwise portended a revolution of the under class. The coloniser will also want to take what it does not like and transform it into something more palatable, an “imaginary founding father” as Carey himself has described Kelly. Kurzel’s goal is not to answer why Kelly became such a national icon, but to simply present his vision of the man, who embodies all of the things mentioned above – criminal, hero, Robin Hood, anarchist, revolutionary, genius – in different ways and in different times, but whose ambition is ultimately overtaken by something akin to a crazed mania.
Kurzel’s film is a true wonder visually. Much like his Macbeth, True History… carries a strange otherworldly sensation throughout. This feeling is achieved two ways. Firstly, it is done through a mix of aerial photography of the immense Australian outback, this enormous landscape of desolate badlands, rainforest-esque trees and snowy wildernesses. Kurzel employs drones and other techniques to get these shots, and manages to emphasise both the strangeness of the surrounds and the isolation of the people that inhabit them. It’s almost apocalyptic: you can imagine Immortan Joe and friends barreling down the road a few hills over. Secondly, the interior shots are completed in an almost unnervingly intimate fashion, right up close and personal in small shacks that can house dozens, lit only by a few candles, where the pervading dark make you feel like you’re really off the edge of the map. There’s obviously a western influence, but a post-modern revisionist western influence, that aims for for a sort of fanciful realism, for lack of a better term.
And then Kurzel really kicks things into gear. There are a number of bizarre, but extremely memorable, sequences, like the Stringybark shoot-out, where the camera stays glued to McKay as he and the rest of the titular gang engage in a brutal battle with police hunting them down, or the final “Siege of Glenrowan”, where the advancing “coppers” are portrayed in a weird , tonally improbable white colour, laying down horrendous fire on the isolated and screaming members of the gang, in moments that turn True History… into a horror movie. Like his approach to the moving of Birnam Wood in Macbeth, Kurzel’s effect is a mix of chilling and markedly inventive. He also employs rapid flashes of white, POV sequences, booming gunshot noises and oddly placed flashback snippets at different points, with True History… keeping you on your feet at all times. This is the same guy who was responsible for the remarkably drab and uninspired cinematography of Assassin’s Creed, an attempted move into the mainstream that backfired horribly: the three years in-between that and this have obviously been spent wisely.
True History Of The Kelly Gang is certainly the most unique take on Ned Kelly that I have seen cinematically, a tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning of the medium (this is the 10th feature about the man). It attempts to craft a three dimensional view of its chief subject that treats him more like a story from literal legend than an historical figure, and while this approach is bound to rub some up the wrong way, I think it works marvelously. Throw in some excellent portrayals of Kelly’s supporting cast of characters, backed up by fine performances from all involved, and then layer on Kurzel’s wonderful cinematography, and you have yourself a winner. Ned Kelly will remain an elusive enigma of a man for the rest of time, the true nature of his character and motivation topics for eternal debate. Kurzel has added splendidly to that conversation, with an adaption that does credit both to the source material and to the director. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Stan, Transmission Films, Picturehouse Entertainment and IFC Films).