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Film Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang (2020; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

A stylish slow-burn adaptation of Peter Carey’s 20-year-old Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang at once raises the enduringly fascinating story of the notoriously turbulent life and violent end of the outlaw bushranger and his cronies in colonial Australia to the level of myth and grounds it in a grimy and bleak dirt-level reality. Including at once fictionalized elements of Ned Kelly’s life (as the novel did) and a scrupulous eye to the finer details of his family life and narrative arc from a hard childhood towards the infamous shootout at Glenrowan and eventual hanging for murder, this is a film with an eye to character psychology and to wider ideas of identity and masculinity and, belatedly in its coda, to a vague sense of the crucible of Australian nationalism.

It’s difficult to explain to an outsider the position that Ned Kelly, or rather his romanticized legend, occupies in Australian cultural identity, and this is an outsider trying to do so. If one were to grasp at American analogues, imagine Jesse James was also somehow perversely Abraham Lincoln. Maybe? Probably not. For Canadians, Louis Riel might be a more apt comparison, if you strip away the elements of indigenous disposession and the two solitudes English-French language dichotomy and the messianic Catholic-derived mysticism (honestly, Louis Riel is a thousand times more interesting than Ned Kelly and deserves twice the posthumous historical and cultural attention, and if he didn’t represent two cultures that Anglo-Canadian power elites would much rather erase from the national psyche, he would get it). Although a glance at Kelly’s biography reveals a petty outback criminal with a tumultuous family life motivated by personal grudges and outlaw self-preservation when pursued by the law, he’s been understood as a Robin Hood figure who represents a sort of principled last stand of defiant bushwhacking self-reliance in the face of a country gradually coalescing around cosmopolitan coastal urbanism. The association with the legendary woodland folk hero of the Middle Ages was only strengthened by his knightly bravado during his gang’s final siege by police forces, which climaxed with Kelly’s emergence from their hideout, guns blazing, clad in self-fashioned semi-bulletproof iron armour. It’s an unforgettable moment in the annals of trivial history and unquestionably cinematic in scope.

As such, Kelly has become both an avatar of a rugged old-fashioned masculinity for patriarchal conservatives (both this film and its literary source material have a riposte to that, as we’ll see) and a more generalized romantic quasi-founding father of Australian national identity: generationally connected to “the Stain” of the System of the old British penal colony but born on the continent himself, resourcefully surviving in a meagre, hardscrabble land by his wit and ability and willingness to break the rules if need be. Ned Kelly is an exemplar of this white Australian historical self-conception that is built on pioneering strength and resolve and functions as much as anything else as an elaborate and compelling foreground narrative covering for the deep background of genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples that is the true history of the European settlement of the Antipodes.

Although True History of the Kelly Gang opens with a Fargo-esque onscreen title laying a claim for truth while also admitting fiction, it hews fairly closely to the broad strokes of Ned Kelly’s biography. Born in 1854 as the son of a weak-willed transported Irish convict (Gentle Bed Corbett) and a mercurial mother (Essie Davis) with a litany of suitors during her husband’s frequent incarcerations and after his eventual death, Ned (Orlando Schwert as a boy, 1917‘s George MacKay as a man) was the eldest male on the family homestead near Beveridge in the State of Victoria and had to act as a primary provider for his clan from the age of 12. He received a criminal apprenticeship from legendary bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) which ran him afoul of the police: in the film, his antagonists in authority positions are first Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), also a lover of his mother’s, and later and more fatefully Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), here characterized as a bacchanalian social chum and informal pimp with sexual interest in Ned’s sister who introduces the young Ned to his (entirely fictional) true love and mother of his child, Mary (Thomasin McKenzie of Jojo Rabbit).

These complex social ties combine with a series of livestock thefts by his brother Dan (Earl Cave) and the Kellys’ habitual intransigence to lead to a confrontation with Fitzpatrick that leaves the copper with a bullet wound and Ned and his gang – Dan and his friend Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) as well as Ned’s bosom buddy Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) – as wanted fugitives. Hiding out in the bush, they kill three policemen sent after them, pull off some brazen bank robberies, and take a group of hostages in Glenrowan before their final stand against a squad of armed police which only Ned survived to be captured, tried, and executed. Along the way in a town called Jerilderie, Ned attempted to publish as a pamphlet his self-justifying side of the story in a letter dictated to Byrne, thus adding to his legend by making Ned Kelly an unofficial autobiographer as well.

Peter Carey in his novel and Justin Kurzel in his movie (the adapted screenplay is by Shaun Grant) fictionalize on the margins of the historical narrative, adding the personal ties between Fitzpatrick and the Kellys, Ned’s romance with Mary, and the suggestion that Harry Power and Ned’s mother Ellen were lovers before his bushranger mentorship with Ned. They also add a pretty significant bit of gender-role-destabilizing mythology to the Kelly Gang, suggesting that Red Kelly was part of an inherited Irish clan order called the Sons of Sieve that regularly engaged in transvestism. Ned is ashamed of his father’s habit of cross-dressing and the weakness he understands it as reflecting (Ellen’s infidelity also stems from similar shame and resentment) and also resents Dan’s adoption of it, but embraces it himself during his fugitive period after learning of its patrilinear provenance. When he raises an army to resist the coming police squad, they all wear women’s dresses as an odd clannish ritual of loyalty (it doesn’t last, as his soldiers scamper off before the shooting begins). Carey’s thematic literary device seems calibrated to undermine the masculinized construction of Ned Kelly in the cultural memory, or at least to productively complicate our perceptions of gender presentation (Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro are composing indignant tweets about the coming collapse of Australian society as we speak).

This ambiguity, which for Ned is more about transgressing the norms of the ordered society he rejects than seriously questioning his gender orientation (despite a close homosocial link to Byrne, he’s straight, thank you very much, which is Mary’s role in the text to establish), is often at odds with Kurzel’s cinematic aesthetic and thematic framing, however. Kurzel previously directed two films headlined by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, a 2015 adaptation of Macbeth (which I thought excellent and whose colour palette and cinematographic approach greatly resembles this movie) and 2016’s video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed (which despite some good ideas but is a complete mess). There’s an abiding sense of strained masculine struggle to the aesthetics of these films that comes out most strongly in True History of the Kelly Gang. Both actors playing Ned spend much of the film shirtless; the taut, sinewy muscle of MacKay’s torso is shot like a tortured landscape by Kurzel’s camera (Ari Wegner is his cinematographer), a corporeal embodiment of the harsh outback. That camera is also quite nearly subjective in its hewing to Ned’s perspective. When he first witnesses murder as a boy during a robbery by Power, Kurzel stages it in slow-motion with washed-out sound. During the ambush of pursuing police at Stringybark Creek, the camera is pinned to MacKay for much of the sequence, his every reaction and breath in unnerving close-up; they do it again when he’s donned his armour for the final stand against police in the climax. Before the bushranger knight charges into legend, Kurzel and Wegner go cinematographic high-concept with the police force’s nocturnal assault on the Kelly Gang’s tin castle: clad in blinding white coats reflecting out through the dark, the police lay into the Kelly hideout with repeating rifles and pierce its walls with dozens of moonlit shafts. They literally besiege the Kellys with light.

Stylish aesthetics aside, Grant’s script turns all of Ned’s troubles into psychological conflicts of burgeoning masculine identity and all of his lashings out into interpersonal expressions of wounded pride. Ned reacts against the people in his life who represent authority that seeks to mould, direct, and oppress him: his father, his mother, his mother’s lovers, Harry Power, Fitzpatrick, and finally the entire police apparatus that the latter represents. I can’t speak to how Carey handles it in the book, but Kurzel’s film excises any hint of sociology from Kelly’s motivations, the elision taking the references in the Jerilderie Letter to discrimination against him and his family at the hands of anti-Irish police and the settler “squattocracy” as self-serving above all and hardly fit fuel for the engine of his Robin Hood mythic reputation. When these themes may have appeared, during a pre-climax conversation with a local schoolteacher kept hostage in Glenrowan (Jacob Collins-Levy) about Kelly’s attempts to write his story, Kurzel has MacKay play Ned as an unpredictable and frightening madman, not any sort of revolutionary with political grievances and rebellious plans.

The schoolmaster Thomas Curnow, who slips away from the Kellys and warns the police about the gang’s plan to ambush the railcar bringing them to the siege site, ends the film in a coda speaking to a well-dressed crowd of the Australian elite about Ned Kelly’s legend and cultural legacy in Australia. He asks his listeners pointedly why Australia is so deficient that it must turn a horse thief and a murderer into their Jefferson or Disraeli. He offers no theorizing of his own on this point, but the smothering applause after he narrates the outlaw’s final moments at the scaffold (“Such is life,” were his famous deadpan last words) are a fairly direct answer. In the position he was put into by his birth and Victorian Australia’s structural prejudices, Ned Kelly may never have stood a chance of not becoming a criminal. That he became a legend and folk hero despite of that is an expression of a certain independence and agency beyond history’s dirt-level outcomes. Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t always sure what to do with Ned Kelly from one step of this (fictionalized, mythified) narrative to the next, to its detriment. But to its credit, it closes with some proscribed understanding of what he meant and what he still means in Australia. If that true history is partly a fiction, a myth, and a lie, then what true history ultimately isn’t?

Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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