THE TRUE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, Australia/UK/France, 2019. Starring George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Orlando Schwerdt, Thomasin McKenzie, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Josephine Blazier. Directed by Justin Kurzel. 124 minutes, Rated MA (Strong themes, violence and coarse language)
The tagline on the posters for this film is: Rewrite History. And there you have it. Fantasy or Reality?
Then, as the title goes on screen, the word ‘true’ is highlighted, ironically. The screenplay is based on the Booker-prize-winning novel (2001) by Peter Carey, so this is his point of view and interpretation of the Kellys via director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassins’ Creed). And Peter Carey is one of the producers of this film.
It could be said that most audiences would not say that they liked this film. None of the characters is likeable, even Ned himself, although there will be some sympathy for him when he was a boy (Orlando Schwerdt), a devotion to his father who was dismissed by his slatternly and possessive mother, all scrounging out a living on a selection where the landscape look like fired land and skeletal tree limbs.
Then, he is patronised by a self-satisfied bushranger, Harry Power (Russell Crowe larger-than-life) who tries to corrupt Ned, buying him from his unscrupulous mother (a convincingly horrid portrait by Essie Davis). Mrs Kelly takes lovers, especially a police trooper played by Charlie Hunnam and who is violently ousted by Harry Power.
By this stage, many in the audience will be thinking that they have to go home and check out the history of Ned Kelly and the Kelly family to find out whether what they have been seeing is accurate or not (not!).
And, this continues the latter part of the film where Ned, now a young adult and played by George MacKay, has been trained as a boxer, fights in the presence of the Governor of Victoria, is patronised by a British trooper, Fitzpatrick, seemingly friendly, but manipulating Ned to his own purposes and played by Nicolas Hoult. He introduces Ned, seemingly a touch Puritan in his life so far despite the violence, to the world of brothels, Ned discovering the friendly Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie) and further complications with his mother who intends to marry a younger American and go to America.
It is the British trooper, his breaking his promises, his double dealing with Kate Kelly, that turn Ned into a violent rebel. He re-discovers his brother, Dan, and Dan’s friend, Steve Hart. Ned has his own friend, Joe Byrne, and some homoerotic moments between them. But, speaking of homoerotic, much is made of the propensity of the bushrangers and gangs dressing in women’s clothes to put off the police riding through the countryside, the dresses as equivalent of masks.
It is surprising for Ned Kelly traditionalists to see the gang all wearing dresses, Ned included, as they prepare for the coming of the train with the police to Glenrowan, Ned sitting at a desk in his dress, writing his memoirs for his unborn daughter, hostage Thomas Curnow wanting to advise him about his writing and literature, and going out to warm the train.
Yes, there are the helmets, based on the Civil War impregnable submarine, a very stylised picturing of the troops lined up and firing at Ned and the gang, expressionistic rather than realistic.
And, just as we were feeling deprived of Ned’s last words, “Such is life”, Curnow gives a speech to a large and applauding public denouncing the outlaw.
As has been said, this may not be the true story of the Kelly gang and we need to go back to check some sources to verify what we have seen – or find that it was not so. An argument could be made for Ned Kelly being something of a local hero in his uprising against authorities – or, he could simply seem to be, as those opposed to his legend declare, an Irish-Australian killer.
Since there have been so many films of the Kellys over the decades, think Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, there are plenty of film versions of Ned and the Kelly gang for comparisons.
Transmission/ Stan streaming Released January 9th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.