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.