When director Gregor Jordan finished reading John Michael McDonagh’s screenplay for Ned Kelly, based on author Robert Drewe’s 1991 novel Our Sunshine, he claimed that the lyricism and intensity of the Irishman’s effort moved him to tears. When McDonagh watched the 2003 film that Jordan made from his work, he cried, too, though for different reasons.
What McDonagh saw was a movie stripped of its visionary potential. The script had been mangled in translation to screen, while the psychological depth of Drewe’s novel had been flattened to Biopic 101. An otherwise brilliant cast was left to utter standard-issue platitudes. McDonagh envisaged a Terrence Malick western set Down Under. What he got was the sliced white loaf of Hollywood’s studio system.
McDonagh’s umbrage and upset shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. His was just one more failure to capture on screen the one Australian story seemingly made for it. From the melodramatic pathos of the largely lost 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, through the series of misfires that reached a nadir with 1970’s disastrous Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger looking like an Amish leprechaun, our efforts to honour European Australia’s most durable antihero on the screen have reliably fallen short.
In Justin Kurzel’s new take on the Kelly myth, the South Australian director, who first made his name with 2011’s Snowtown – another, albeit more contemporary, tale of redneck nihilism and masculine violence – has sought to avoid the pitfalls Jordan and his many predecessors encountered. First and most important in this respect was Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant’s decision to base the script on Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang – a novel that furnishes a more delirious and frenetic version of events than Drewe’s novel.
Carey’s work was inspired by Kelly’s own words. The “Jerilderie Letter”, a 56-page manifesto-cum-confession written by the bushranger while on the lam from authorities in 1879, is a document whose naive poetry, rhetorical grandiosity and punctuation-free flow make it uniquely amenable to the visual grammar of film.
And Kurzel harnesses the energy of Carey’s reworking of Kelly’s prose to impressive effect. There is a manic, punkish intensity to the film’s performances – most notably that of George MacKay, who, as Edward “Ned” Kelly, brings to the role a stripped-down physicality that owes as much to Sid Vicious as to the hirsute Irish–Australian bushranger.
The film also avoids the usual front-office accounts of Kelly and his gang’s rise to infamy. No bank robbery scenes or jump cuts to bewhiskered troopers poring over maps. Instead it concentrates, at least initially, on the domestic and the feminine – a film set less in the bush than in bush-hut interiors. An account of emotional development, then, in which the relationship between son and mother Ellen (portrayed with steely self-possession by Essie Davis) is the film’s most potent.
In this spirit, True History begins with Ned as a child (Orlando Schwerdt in the role, a wounded angel with a strawberry-blond mullet), observing through a broken wall slat his mother providing sexual favours to an English sergeant, played by a creepy, oleaginous Charlie Hunnam, in return for rent on their broken-down home.
Ned’s dad, John “Red” Kelly (Ben Corbett), a former convict, impotently stands by and is immediately relegated to non-entity status for the film’s purposes. What follows is a fatherless childhood – one in which the ferocious reality of life for poor Irish families in colonial-era Australia is laid bare before Ned and his siblings are mature enough to assimilate the trauma.
Such accelerated development is captured neatly in one early scene. Pa Kelly has died, likely murdered by the lascivious sergeant – in truth, he died of drink – and Ellen Kelly has taken on a protector: the real-life convict-turned-bushranger Harry Power, played with gruff, ruthless, scene-stealing charm by Russell Crowe. Seated round a battered table, Ned and his younger siblings sing along to an obscene ditty as Power twinkles merrily over his guitar.
Power, avuncular at first towards Ned, does not turn out to be the protective type. It becomes clear that Ellen has sold her son into a criminal apprenticeship. Out on the road together, Power teaches Ned to steal, drink and even kill – an education that goes against the grain of the young boy’s innate decency.
When Ned is later reunited with his family, his sense of grievance at maternal betrayal is checked by residual loyalty. He absorbs Ellen’s reflexive anti-English vitriol, hardens into the mould of her ideological fixity. Out of the vacuum of identity he suffers as an unwanted first-generation colonial, she provides a sustaining narrative of Irish rebellion. The story True History tells is that of Ned’s halting yet inexorable radicalisation.
The film’s shoestring budget places obvious constrictions on the scale and nature of True History’s depictions of Ned’s progress. Most scenes are framed tightly and deeply shadowed; clothing and furniture, buildings and interiors admit a kind of reverse anachronism, with modern items jumbled in with the crinoline frocks and rusted iron sheds.
Sometimes, as in those moments set in a grand, candlelit home that is also a working brothel, the mash-up of textures can seem weirdly apposite. A Shetland pony wanders past a man smoking a pipe on a chaise longue, naked except for his garters, granting the louche tableau an air of surreal comedy. And there is a beatnik vibe to the scene where young Ned and his new friend and later partner-in-crime Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) hop a train. It looks closer to a mid-century diesel than a steam locomotive.
But there are also losses. The sense of expansiveness that often renders the Australian landscape a major character in its own right is curtailed here: the few scenes unfolding outside in daylight are stilted, cropped in portrait mode. That historical reality, when properly re-created, provides a visual shorthand for the total web of social mores, gender roles, cultural and political structures in which characters live and breathe. In True History this is discarded in favour of a stagey formalism.
To really understand Ned’s motivations though, we need to understand the world that rejected him, punished him and goaded him into defiance. That larger picture is lacking here, and so the filmmaker resorts instead to making internal motivations stand in for external ones. Viewers must take the colonial Victorian-era milieu, with its petty hypocrisies and fixed social stations, its highfalutin piety and fierce sense of retributive justice, as a given – existing, whole and entire, somewhere just off screen.
The decision, for example, to have Ned and his gang wear women’s clothing during their rustling and raiding is great fun and furnishes a zeitgeisty, psychosexual shiver – one of the historical gang did, indeed, dress in women’s clothes, though the record is silent on whether this was a mind-game played against the police or a personal choice.
But once the first shock has waned, the effect palls. It is a cosmetic fix for a structural problem, one that only a richer investigation of Ned and Ellen’s damaged relationship could provide. We are asked to understand Ned as a victim, one driven to violence and insanity by early trauma – by being trapped between competing ideologies, or the implacable dictates of gender, race or caste. As we see with Jimmie Blacksmith in Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film, the awful illogic of the colonial experience can be destructive to those who lack a clear place within it.
Ned’s end, however, while viscerally evoked in the film's climax – the famous Glenrowan siege, which unfolds in neon-irradiated, strobe-lit darkness, like a first-person shooter game viewed from behind Ned’s legendary helmet – is only tragic to the degree that it shows Ned’s solitary crusade clash against the colonial administration in all its force. The other half of the equation, the emergent national order that must subdue its critics and enemies in case they threaten its legitimacy, is often missing.
There is one final ignominy in painting Ned Kelly as a victim. It robs him of the agency that, rightly or wrongly, he won for himself in historical terms. The decision to do so removes the existential thrill that has made him such an enduring, vivid and contested figure. He is at once an avatar of violence and wholly innocent of its effects. No justification is required, neither praise nor condemnation necessary. His life ends on the scaffold at Melbourne Gaol just as it began, morally inviolate.
For all these complaints, Kurzel, his cast and crew have achieved a great deal with very little in True History. They have succeeded in wrenching Kelly out of his bygone aspic and returned to him the frisson of Australianness. He remains archetypal: our wild colonial boy.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 1, 2020 as "Fire in the Kelly".
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