George MacKay

True History of the Kelly Gang

28/02/20

True confession. When I was a much younger man, I was obsessed with the story of Ned Kelly. I read several accounts of his exploits, which gripped my imagination and, in 1970, saw Tony Richardson’s underrated biopic, which – once I got used to Mick Jagger’s alarming ‘Oirish’ accent – had me fully onboard. I even watched Heath Ledger’s fairly forgettable attempt to embody Australia’s best known folk hero in 2003. What is it about the infamous outlaw that continues to exert such a powerful hold?

In True History of the Kelly Gang (loosely based on Peter Carey’s Booker-winning novel, which I’ve also read), director Justin Kurzel doesn’t so much reinvent Kelly’s history as place a bomb under all that we know about the man and blow it to smithereens.

To give him his due, the resulting film, which is neatly divided into three chapters, is for the most part gripping. We open in the 1860s, where a young Ned (Orlando Schwert) is living in the outback in absolute squalor. He’s in thrall to his manipulative mother, Ellen (Essie Davis), who is turning tricks for the local constabulary in the shape of Sgt O’ Neil (Charlie Hunnam) in order to put food into the mouths of her children. Ned soon finds himself apprenticed to the outwardly charming bush ranger, Harry Power (an excellent Russell Crowe), and is schooled in the ways of the outlaw and the doctrines of toxic masculinity.

In the second section, the adult Ned (George Mckay) returns from a long spell in prison to find his mother still ruling the roost and living with a Californian horse thief, who has enlisted Ned’s brother into his trade. During a visit to the local brothel, Ned meets up with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) and with Mary Hearn (an underused Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he promptly falls in love. This second section is already starting to feel rather strange. Ned appears to be dressed in suspiciously contemporary style: he sports a dodgy mullet and has a predilection for writhing around half naked, like an embryonic Iggy Pop. Kurzel seems to be invoking parallels with the British punk rock movement here and images of Kelly looking suitably aggressive in front of a Union Jack reinforce this notion. Still, so far, the conceit works brilliantly.

It’s in the third section where everything becomes spectacularly unhinged. Kelly’s sudden descent into apparent madness overwhelms the material. The Kelly gang run around in dresses – seemingly a reference to groups of Irish agrarian rebels, known as The Sons of Sieve. They blacken their faces, enlist followers and launch an ill conceived attempt to attack a train full of police officers. The famous suits of armour (always, I think, the most fascinating aspect of Kelly’s story) barely get a look in. Mayhem descends but, unfortunately, so does bewilderment.

In the end, it all feels too self-consciously weird – and apparent luminosity of the ranks of police officers, appearing in the climactic gun battle, is just too opaque for comfort. While I applaud Kurzel for having the guts to take on such a revered Australian institution in so fearless a manner, I have to conclude that this feels like a bold experiment that doesn’t quite work.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

1917

10/01/20

Blame Orson Welles. 

In his 1958 film, Touch of Evil, he decided to kick proceedings off with a twelve minute continuous tracking shot and, in doing so, opened future filmmakers up to the idea of what might be done with the concept once technology had made it easier to accomplish such marvels. 

In 2016, Sebastian Schipper finally took the idea to its logical conclusion with his low-budget thriller, Victoria, a nail biting two hours and 18 minutes filmed in one continuous take. Surely, there was nowhere else left to go?

Clearly, nobody told Sam Mendes. 1917, based on stories told to him by his grandfather, a World War 1 veteran, isn’t quite a single take movie – it really couldn’t be, not on the scale envisaged for this epic drama – but it is composed of several lengthy tracking shots, cunningly spliced together to make it look like a seamless sequence. There’s only one (intentionally) obvious cut in its entire run, which – given the story’s circumstances – seems entirely justified. 

There’s no time wasted on needless exposition. We are quickly introduced to the two protagonists who will lead us through the story. They are Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), two young soldiers, who – within minutes of the film opening – have been charged with a monumental task: to travel miles across enemy-occupied territory to call off a planned attack by another division, set to occur the following morning. Aerial surveillance has exposed the endeavour as a carefully laid trap, the Germans forces giving the appearance that they are in retreat when, in fact, they are primed to exact a punishing slaughter. To add extra jeopardy to the situation, Blake’s older brother is serving with the battalion that is about to go over the top. If the message doesn’t get through in time, sixteen hundred men will be needlessly massacred…

And, in terms of plot, that’s all you need to know. With the clock ticking, the two men set off along the crowded trenches until they reach the final outpost and are obliged to walk across no-man’s land, weighed down by the awful knowledge that every moment of delay brings disaster a step closer.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is a thing of wonder. I soon forget the gimmick (because a gimmick; it most certainly is) and find myself caught up in the almost unbearable suspense of the situation. 

This is a war movie that feels horribly immersive. The distance between the screen and my seat seems non-existent and I am in those trenches along with the protagonists, wading through mud and across rat-ravaged corpses. I am dodging bullets and bursts of shrapnel; I am shivering with cold and running frantically past blazing buildings, stranded amidst the architecture of a world gone mad. Yes, this is undoubtedly a technological marvel but, more importantly, it is a riveting, pummelling experience that drives home the horror and futility of war. Lest I make it all sound unbearable, let me add that there are a couple of instances of unexpected beauty in this film, scenes where elements of nature and the resilience of humanity shine like jewels amidst the smoke and devastation.

A whole host of top-flight actors put in cameos as commanding officers, but it’s the two young leads who carry this film and it’s easy to see why it has already earned itself a well deserved ‘best picture’ award at the Golden Globes. 

For all the razzmatazz of its structure, it’s inevitably story that comes first and this delivers at every level, resulting in the first truly unmissable film of 2020.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Captain Fantastic

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14/09/16

The ‘Captain’ of the title is Ben (Viggo Mortenson) a former hippie who now lives off grid in the wilds of North America with his six children. There, he drills them in a hard and uncompromising lifestyle, equal parts physical exercise, reading quality literature and discussing philosophy. Living in homemade tipis, the kids hunt deer, make music and wait for their mother to return from the hospital. She’s been there for several months, suffering from a bipolar disorder.

But then some terrible news arrives. She isn’t coming back. In the grip of depression, she has committed suicide. Of course, there must be a funeral, so Ben loads the kids onto his trusty bus, “Steve”, and heads for civilization. But what will Ben’s kids make of the ‘real’ world? How will they ever interact with kids whose idea of ‘the wild’ is based entirely on what they’ve seen in violent  video games.

This is an appealing, engaging film, wittily scripted by writer/director Matt Ross, and Viggo Mortenson excels in the lead role. Much of the humour here comes from the culture-clash between Ben’s feral offspring and the more sedate family members they encounter who cannot grasp what Ben has been doing with them. His major adversary is his father-in-law, Jack (Frank Langella) who clearly thinks he’s a prize asshole – which to some degree, he probably is, refusing to compromise on any of his dearly-held beliefs, even when he discovers that his eldest boy, Bo (a delightful performance from George MacKay), secretly longs to go to university, where he can experience something that he hasn’t merely read about in books.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the family’s wild lifestyle is perhaps too romanticised. Occasionally, their day-to-day existence resembles an improbable Eden, where the worst thing they can encounter is scratching themselves on a rock. But that’s a minor niggle – on the whole, this is hugely entertaining from start to finish. It’s probably worth the price of admission, just for the scene where Bo plights his troth to a teenage girl he meets on a campsite, working from ideas he’s encountered in classic fiction, while Ben’s oration at his late wife’s funeral is another toe-curling highlight.

Catch this before it escapes back into the wilds.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney