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True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang

The absolute bollocks story of some people at some time

dir: Justin Kurzel


I had, at first, thought this might be a decent reappraisal of the Ned Kelly legend fit for the whole family to enjoy. Of course the opening minutes of the film, dealing as they do with a young Ned (as a kid played by Orlando Schwerdt) watching his mother blow a trooper (Charlie Hunnam), and all such thoughts rapidly evaporated.

Nah, even I’m not that dumb. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was actually excited about seeing this flick. There’s two main reasons for that. I still remember the review I wrote of the Gregor Jordan-directed, Heath Ledger-starring Ned Kelly from a while back.

I remember it so well, because I hated it so much. I don’t think “hate” is too strong a word to describe it. My feelings were less than charitable. It didn’t work for me on any level, I thought every single soul in it was horribly miscast, and I thought the pretentious yet deadeningly dumb script were just too much.

And then years later Heath Ledger died, and I remember feeling extremely guilty about my review, as if I had somehow contributed to his death. I’m not…wait a second, I’m not saying it’s either true or that I actually believed it – stop looking at me like that – I’m just saying that it felt like that. That version of Ned Kelly’s story, good or bad as it was, was what it was. I seem to recall it was based on a book, being Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe, which I remember because a friend of mine gave me a different Robert Drewe book as a present, being The Drowner, which he published straight after.

Well, this version which, remember, I was looking forward to seeing, like, actively looking forward to seeing, is also based on a book, being Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which again is a fictionalized account based on the style and perspective of the Jerilderie Letter. A letter which Ned is said to have dictated to his good friend Joe Byrne, copies of which still exist, but I don’t know if it’s actually what they say it is, but something was written down by someone at a time and place, so…

In those days they called it a letter, but these days it would be called a manifesto, and nothing good happens when someone puts out a manifesto. Invariably it’s followed by a killing spree. In the letter Ned rails against the predations of the troopers and their persecution of his family specifically and the Irish more generally.

Carey’s book follows that logic through and elaborates on the themes of the letter, but magnify his self-justifications for his criminal actions in a way that almost justifies the rise of the legend of Ned Kelly as some strange Australian folk hero, to the point where so many bogans have tattoos of either Ned himself in his armour, or his alleged last words “such is life.”

This film, despite its anachronistic clothing and stagey design, pretty closely follows the Peter Carey book, for good or ill. And, remember, I was looking forward to seeing this, and didn’t particularly hold any animus towards anyone involved.

And I watched it voluntarily, of my own free will, being of somewhat sound mind, though not of body.

Justin Kurzel is something of an enigma as a director. He made the grim and uncompromising Snowtown, about the horrible murders that happened in the town of the same name, Hollywood pap like Assassin’s Creed, and now this, which, somehow, you’d think he’d be able to make his way without too many fingers in the pie, so to speak. He’s also married to Essie Davis, who plays Ned’s mum, so it’s no surprise that she’s here, also because she fucking awesome in everything she’s in, whether it’s The Babadook, Game of Thrones, Cloudstreet or even as Phryne Fisher in Murder Mysteries, or anything else you care to name. Few actors can shift from feral, to imperious, to desperate, to glorious as speedily or as convincingly as Essie. She should be in all the movies and all the tv shows.

She gives the flat out best performance in the film. Fiercely protective of her family, willing to literally do anything to protect them, she also, perversely, romantically, doesn’t hate the idea of them going out in a blaze of glory in her honour. She is the monstrous maternal figure out of Greek myth, as much Medea as Medusa, and there is something very disturbing going on in her relationships with the people around her.

Before I go any further, I also have to point out that where most of the flick is set is actually near the places important to the story in real life, and, using the Winton wetlands in Victoria, they manage to make it look like this family lives on another planet.

It's a flat and blasted landscape, with dead trees all over the place, many which look burnt, and the shack where a woman and like ten kids seems to live, and it looks unfortunately a bit too similar to recent wine commercials on Australian (or at least Victorian) tv exhorting viewers to Embrace the Magnificent Unknown by drinking as many litres of Jacob’s Creek as one can afford.

Now, I can state for a fact that the Unknown embraced by drinking enough wine is not Magnificent in any way, and it is more akin to being blackout drunk, which isn’t good for anyone except Jacob’s Creek. Those commercials are incredibly relevant in Australia because they have a certain look, they often have Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds music playing in them, so they’re very culturally loaded, and they are very fucking pretentious. Smarter minds than mine have pointed out that these ads, with their primal, protean focus, of dangerous, serious men forcing their hands into the soil, and wandering confused looking women are a lot of sugarcoating and cosplay to dress up the fact that most wine production is purely an industrial process.

So it does have a striking look, this flick, but it does sometimes look like the latest Jacob’s Creek commercial.

The film is split into three parts: Boy, Man and Monitor. Boy is where the young Ned is let down by everyone in his life, including his cross-dressing father, who all the same instils in him a deep rage against the machine, and a simultaneous fierce love and terror of his mother. He also gets to hangout with a murderous bushranger called Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who kills people like it ain’t no thing and steals their stuff. It might be impolite to point out that Ned’s mother sells him to Power for 15 pounds or so, which I imagine was a lot of money back then.

Fuck it, in plague times like these, it’s a lot of money for anyone. There’s so much unemployment everywhere. Harry teaches the wrong lessons to Ned, all the wrong lessons, but they are the lessons Ned’s mum wanted him to learn. Because she wants Ned to get revenge, presumably for her, but also for all the Irish peoples everywhere, being ground under the heel of the English.

In Man, the boy is now played by George McKay, star of 1917, Pride, bunch of other stuff, good young British actor, who attacks the part with a dead eyed ferocity because, I hope I’m not overstating things, the director decided to turn it into a weird punk / cross-dressing extravaganza in organza. Here, Ned and those around him, with whom he seems to be awfully close (whether it’s occasionally cuddling with his mum, kissing and cuddling with best friend Joe (Sean Keenan) seem to not only be trying to attack the colonial structures that oppress the poor, black and Irish, but also to tear down some gender norms and fashion stereotypes as well.

The aesthetics change, and not subtly. It’s gone from being a wild colonial story to something scrawled on the toilet walls of a rock pub venue (such places used to exist up until 4 months ago). Now, from a few guys wearing dresses, Ned has a revolutionary army of men in gowns wanting to kill them some coppers. One of Ned’s brothers is played by one of Nick Cave’s older kids, being Earl Cave, and based on his performance, I feel safe saying that the only reason he’s here is because he is one of Nick Cave’s sons. And instead of looking like Nick Cave, looks more like Jack White from his White Stripes days. And, as performances go, maybe they should have had Nick Cave playing the role.

McKay as Ned fights with people, spends time serving at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in jail, meets a young prostitute with a baby called Mary (Thomasin Mackenzie), falls in love, and keeps trying and failing to kill the copper tormenting his family now. The Sergeant played by Charlie Hunnam is gone, now replaced with a vile, vicious Constable (Nicholas Hoult) who seems to be all forms of depraved, and absolutely determined to fuck everyone in Ned’s family, both literally and figuratively.

Seeing the sweet goofy boy from About a Boy so many years ago now playing sadistic monsters is too much. It’s a lot. I know that Nicholas Hoult has been in stacks of things and is a wonderful actor, but some roles are just too loathsome. He’s also naked for long stretches of the film. I don’t really know why.

In one of Ned’s many attempts to kill Constable Fitzpatrick yet lose his nerve, in the good constable’s dining room on the wall he spies blueprint-like drawings of an ironclad steamship called the Monitor, from which Ned gets his greatest fashion ideas. You know the one, iron helmet and evening gown? He then wanders out of the room, keen to make his ideas a reality (?)

There are a lot of scenes like that. They’re kind of disjointed and disconnected, and you’re meant to just know why or how something ending, without any of the detail, or how people ended up where they end up. And it’s okay, because it’s the punk aesthetic, apparently.

I have to say I found the parts with Mary disturbing and upsetting as well. Thomasin MacKenzie is a fine actor I’ve seen in a lot of films lately, a couple of months ago as the lead in Deborah Granik’s Leave No Trace, and as the Jewish teenager hiding from the Nazis in Jojo Rabbit. I’m sure she’s probably in her twenties, but it kinda made me sad for such a character to be in the position she’s in, and for the actor to do a nude scene, when at least in my mind she’s still the age of the characters she’s recently portrayed.

I mean, she isn’t given much of anything to do here other than have the vile constable threaten her baby, she’s wonderful and she should get all the good roles in the future good films.

I have to say, the last part of the film, heavily stylised as it is, and seriously fucking demented as it is, falls into the same trap that I dreaded and remembered from the earlier flick with Heath Ledger. Only, in some totally demented kinds of ways, it somehow manages to be even worse.

When Ned and his army / gang take a bunch of hostages as a prelude to the Glenrowan shootout, Ned, acting like he’s demented from too much, I dunno, opium or something, scrawls some pages, but interviews the local school teacher Thomas Curnow. Wearing a gown, with what almost looks like soot used as blackface, Ned grunts questions at Curnow, slams the table repeatedly, kisses Curnow on the lips, screams incoherently, threatens him, scrawls some more, but eventually lets Curnow go with the promise that he’ll come back with a dictionary and a book on grammar in order to help Ned better phrase his manifesto, the one he’s writing so that his child will one day know he was a decent man?

That scene I’m describing, I doubt I did it justice just in terms of how fucked it is. What comes after is what it is, inevitable as it is, with the famous shootout going the way it does, but it manages to confuse and enrage and horrify me in particular, by aggravatingly using a strobe light for nearly 15 minutes, as if personally calculated to make me hate it even more.

Oh, and I fucking hated that part, of that have no doubt. I loathe strobing lights so fucking much, and it goes on for an eternity. I get that Wurzel was trying to do something different with a famous scene, but there is no excuse for that sort of fuckery.

Despite all that, and you have to accept just how hard it is for me to be equanimious after enduring something like that climax, Ned’s famous end is touching and perfectly well done, seeing as he gets to see his sainted / demonic mother one more time, and he becomes one with eternity, pledging as he does to the child he’ll never know that he loved her all the same. It’s one of the few instances in a film where narration and voiceover enhanced the storytelling, crucial as they are to replicating the feel of the Jerilderie Letter and the emotional honesty and cadences of the novel. MacKay may be terrible as Ned Kelly, beard or no beard, but he does a good stab at the pre-Australian Australian accent, and his line delivery is usually okay.

I don’t know. I was primed for a literal take on the material, I was primed for an experimental take on the material, I just think, goddamn, maybe it’s impossible to adapt it properly or improperly.

There’s half of a good movie there, which I guess is enough if you’re a half glass full kind of person. The soundtrack by Kurzel’s brother Jed is ominous and strong, the cinematography is fine, every time Essie Davis or the younger Ned are onscreen is wonderful. Even Russell Crowe is pretty good, in a limited role.

But honestly, how do you fuck this story up again? Why do people keep trying? Isn’t there enough in the story already to not need to add in all the other extraneous bullshit.

5 times there will never probably be a decent version of this story ever told out of 10

“Know that I shall tell no lie, let me burn in hell should I speak false.” – True History of the Kelly Gang