If you've read Peter Carey's marvelous 2001 True History of the Kelly Gang, you'll be aware going into a faithful new film adaptation of the novel that the word "true" is a signal to literary mischief and sly tampering with received history. Director Justin Kurzel and writer Shaun Grant mirror Carey's grimly playful take on the myths that have grown around Ned Kelly, leader of the notorious Australian Kelly Gang.
In his second feature after the chilling 2012 horror movie Snowtown, Kurzel adds a ravishingly brutal visual grammar that pictures the country's state of Victoria as a late 19th century Wild West with no clear boundaries between those who break the law and the British colonizers meant to enforce it. Not that there's much law to start with. A former theatrical designer, Kurzel wrings a ravaged beauty from a rural landscape so blighted, its trees stick straight up in the air, leafless and barren. The soundtrack, by turns eerie and jangling, draws on the frantically nihilist punk canon of the 1970s, exactly a century after the Kelly Gang's rise and fall. In a recurring, misleadingly romantic long shot we see Ned riding a white horse through the countryside.
Depending on your tolerance for savage mayhem, Ned Kelly — famous down under and overseas for the crude metal bucket he wore to butt heads with the Brits — was either a folk hero with Robin Hood tendencies or a murderous thug who spent his short, sharp life stealing horses, robbing banks, and whacking the constabulary who got in his way as reigning overlord of the Sons of Sieve, a ragtag band of Irish-born or bred resistance fighters whose odd signature was the frilly dresses they wore to battle the oppressor.
Hero or villain, that duality has pretty much come to be a staple of any knowing 21st-century revision of the Western hero, and certainly in anyone as drawn to subversive subtext as Carey. Faithful to the writer's sly vision, Kurzel pries loose the man from both myths and digs deeper to give Kelly an origin story in three parts, told by Ned himself in a letter he writes from prison to the baby daughter he will never see grow up. Woven into Ned's earnest missive, an alternate tale unfolds as a black tragicomedy studded with the pathos of a frightened and confused boy forced into manhood far too early, with myth and reality all jumbled up in his addled head.
Carey's Ned, expanded by Kurzel, is something of a screw-up as both saint and sinner. There's something biddable about Ned that makes him both easy to love and fatally vulnerable to baleful influence. Which may be why Kurzel cast George MacKay as his lead and not the more dashing Nicholas Hoult, who plays a cruel and callow local policeman who preys on Ned's mother. MacKay showed himself a versatile performer in Pride, Game of Thrones, and 1917, but there's an irreducibly sweet goofiness that serves him beautifully as Ned, an innocent warped into avenging angel by early trauma, destitution, and the brutal injuries of the colonial rule he was born into.
Played as a child by a seraphic Orlando Schwerdt, Ned is shaped early on by the loss of his father and the twisted devotion of his mother, played by the terrific Australian actress Essie Davis, recently seen as a harried single mother in The Babadook and as the sexy lay detective in television's Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Davis's Ellen Kelly may be the most bracing portrait of maternal devotion gone bananas on the screen today. A proud, wild-haired warrior, Ellen Kelly will do anything, including selling her body and her favorite son, to protect the little that's hers. Even the religiosity that sustains her has gotten tangled in her head, and, inevitably, her credulous son's.
A hyper-responsible little man of the house, Ned adores his mother back, and their mad kinship will remain the movie's fulcrum, molding the eager-to-please lad into an adult who's equal parts creative writer and bitter avenger. In the latter he's helped along by bush ranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, vast in size and billowing rhetoric), whose sexual impotence feeds straight into a horrifying sadism that lands his young charge in prison. Years later Ned emerges a man of sorts but divided against himself, his most creative impulses twisted by circumstance into violence and a tendency to bend with every wind. Ned has been shown enough affection to enable him to fall in love and father a child with a sweet young prostitute (Thomasin Mackenzie). But his encounters with a viciously exploitive British constable, played wittily against type by Charlie Hunnam, will be the making of Ned, and also his undoing.
And so Ned's story comes to an end, his account always refracted for us by the film's visceral interpretation. True History of the Kelly Gang ends with a set piece that both tops and undercuts every bravura climactic gunfight you may have seen. The spectacle, at once brutal and absurd (here comes that metal bucket), affirms and demolishes Ned's messenger-of-God fantasies and those of the Western too. Behind his dangling body we hear echoes of an earlier comment by a buddy with a clearer head. "None of this is the work of God," he whispers to Ned. "You're just a man."
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