In 2011, Justin Kurzel, an Australian director, first attracted attention for his feature film debut, The Smalltown Murders, which was based on the crimes of serial killer John Bunting in South Australia. For his follow-up film, he went to Scotland and made a savage, stylized interpretation of MacBeth (2015) starring Michael Fassbinder, which was nominated for the Palme d’Oro at the Cannes Film Festival. Then Kurzel graduated to the major leagues for Assassin’s Creed (2016), a big budget fantasy adventure filmed in Malta, Spain and the UK and based on the popular video game series. The critics savaged it, moviegoers were indifferent, and it was considered one of the biggest bombs of 2016. After that, Kurzel returned to his homeland and decided to focus on a folk hero who is still a polarizing figure in his country’s history – Ned Kelly. The subsequent film, True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), is a visually dynamic and emotionally chaotic biopic which might be the most unusual interpretation yet of Australia’s infamous outlaw.
There have been numerous films based on Ned Kelly’s exploits over the years but almost all of them have been Australian productions which are little known outside their own country. Among them are The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), which is often considered the first feature length movie ever made (it runs 60 minutes), When the Kellys Rode (1934), directed by Harry Southwell, The Glenrowan Affair (1951) starring Australian football star Bob Chitty, and the comedy Reckless Kelly (1993) with Yahoo Serious in the title role. The best-known film about the infamous bushranger is probably Ned Kelly (1970) from British director Tony Richardson, which featured Mick Jagger in his first dramatic role. In 2003 Gregor Jordan offered another variation on the legend with Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly but it is rarely listed among that actor’s career highpoints and neither Jordan’s or Richardson’s film were successful with critics or audiences.
Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang is an attempt to redefine the folk heroes as a creative and liberating force that channeled their fury at authority figures much like the pioneers of the punk rock movement. In an interview on the Deadline website, the director said that the Kelly Gang reminded him of “a particular period in music and a particular punk scene in Australia that was a hugely creative, interesting time with bands like The Saints and Birthday Party. There was a sensuality to that time, and there was an enormous kind of creativity….That spirit and humor I borrowed enormously for Ned.”
Loosely based on Peter Carey’s 2000 award-winning novel of the same name, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant have added their own ideas and embellishments to the tale to make it their own so if you are looking for a historically accurate or fact-based biography of Ned Kelly, this is not the place to start. Kurzel is more interested in challenging prevailing attitudes about Aussie culture, national identity and the kind of toxic masculinity that permeated films like Wake in Fright (1971), The Road Warrior (1981) and Romper Stomper (1992).
History of the Kelly Gang presents the formative events in the outlaw’s life through a three-act structure with chapter headings of “Boy,” “Man” and “Monitor.” The latter is a reference to the USS Monitor, the ironclad Union warship in the Civil War, which inspired Kelly and his men to create their own metal body armor as protection during gunfights with law officers.
In some ways, the first act of the film is the most compelling and evocative since it shows how the grinding poverty, deprivation and dysfunctional upbringing by woefully unfit parents shaped Ned’s personality and view of the world. It also sets up the intense love/hate relationship between Ned and Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis), his ferocious, indomitable mother. One moment she is verbally abusing him, the next cuddling up to him in bed like a lover. Ned’s conflicted feelings about her might be one reason he is more relaxed and content in the company of men, particularly his best mate Joe (Sean Keenan). In one of the more surprising turn of events, Ellen sells young Ned (a memorable performance by Orlando Schwerdt) to her lover Harry Power (Russell Crowe) to serve as his indentured servant and become a man in the process. It becomes a horrific education to say the least, involving thievery, murder and other criminal acts.
The rest of the film follows Ned’s transition from a brooding, resentful outsider to an openly defiant renegade and George Mackay, the young actor who played the main message runner in Sam Mendes’s war epic 1917, is tasked with this challenging role. Although he gives an intensely physical performance, MacKay is less successful at making Ned an empathic character or articulating the emotions and dark thoughts that drive his behavior.
Mackay also doesn’t look anything like the real Ned Kelly. He is clean-shaven with a lean but remarkably chiseled physique (which explains the numerous semi-nude scenes) and looks much younger than a 28-year-old man (the actor was born in 1992). In his photos, the real Ned Kelly had a thick, bushy beard, a stocky physique not unlike that of actor Oliver Reed and the appearance of a man in his late thirties, even though he was only 25 when he died. Of course, historic authenticity is not what director Kurzel is after here and his deconstruction of the mythic has a subversive spirit that stands out in certain scenes and in some of the supporting performances.
Essie Davis, who is married to Justin Kurzel and was so excellent as the star of 2014’s The Babadook, is a formidable force of nature as Ned’s hellcat mom, and Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick makes a wickedly flirtatious villain with the suggestion that he wants something more than friendship from Ned. The real scene stealer, however, is Russell Crowe, who brings a palpable sense of menace and dark humor to his portrayal of the highly dangerous Harry Power.
Other notable cast members include Thomasin McKenzie as Mary Hearn, the teenage prostitute who becomes Ned’s companion for a brief time, and Charlie Hunnam as a corrupt policeman. McKenzie, who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for JoJo Rabbit, is given little to do here and barely makes an impression as Ned’s first sexual experience. Likewise, Hunnam tries his best to make something substantial out of his despicable lawman but it remains little more than a cameo role.
What does distinguish True History of the Kelly Gang from other versions of the tale is Ari Wegner’s expressionist cinematography that sets the right tone, mood or emotion required for key sequences such as the early scenes of Ned’s childhood which are set in a hellish landscape – a ramshackle house on a dusty, scrub-grass prairie, surrounded by blackened tree trunks from a brushfire. The sequence where the Kelly gang stages a spontaneous ambush on some hapless trackers is both brutal and shocking and the climatic attack at night by the British authorities on the outlaw gang is truly hallucinatory as the lawmen surround the hideout, looking like white-robed space invaders, while we get disorienting point of view shots from Ned through a slit in his metal helmet.
Another aspect of Kurzel’s film that makes a lasting impression is the way it defies and subverts the uber-macho behavior and attitudes we associate with the depiction of outlaws in movies. Cross-dressing is a recurring motif throughout True History of the Kelly Gang and is first introduced when Ned’s brother Dan (played by Earl Cave, son of musician/singer Nick Cave) steals some dresses from a bordello because he likes the way they look. Even Constable Fitzpatrick reveals a fondness for women’s refinery, saying to Ned, “Have you ever f*cked in a dress. It’s nice. It feels like you’re breaking the rules.” And over the course of the film, Ned and his gang begin to dress as women during their outings because they make good disguises and confuse their enemies.
It all culminates in a wild rave-up where Ned, jumping around in a gown like a total nutcase, exhorts his army of cross-dressers to rise up: “Are we gonna kill some coppers? Are we gonna rewrite history? Are we gonna write it in blood? We are the stolen men in a stolen land and we are gonna take back what is rightly ours.” The scene has a primal anti-British rage that conjures up memories of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols crashing the Queen’s 25th Silver Jubilee in 1977.
Although the subject matter may lack resonance or appeal for some stateside moviegoers, True History of the Kelly Gang is a film that deserves to be seen and experienced on the big screen. Subtitles would be helpful too since the thick Australian accents are occasionally difficult to understand. For the time being, however, new film releases are going to be targeted at home viewing. True History of the Kelly Gang is scheduled for release on April 24th at various streaming platforms such as iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay/YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation and many more.
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