True History of the Kelly Gang

 

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Playing Ned Kelly finds George MacKay following in the footsteps of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, amongst others.

 
True History of the Kelly Gang

  

For film enthusiasts Robin Hood is defined by the 1938 classic starring Errol Flynn but even without that movie our image of England’s mythical folk hero would be clear-cut. How different is the position of Australia’s chosen outlaw folk hero, Ned Kelly, whose real life exploits were so violent as to render him controversial and more of an antihero than a hero if not a downright criminal. The title of Justin Kurzel’s new film might seem to hold out the promise of bringing us a defining portrayal of this man, but even before the title arrives on screen we get a preliminary announcement telling us that nothing that we are about to see is true. That could be a way of underlining the fact that Kelly himself (George MacKay) tells his own story here. This is done in voice overs derived from his writings and consequently what we are getting is inevitably a one-sided narration of self-justification. Such an approach could indeed prove acceptable and the disappointment that Kurzel’s film turns out to be derives not from that but from Shaun Grant's screenplay which gives us a picture of Ned Kelly that comes to seem ill-defined and confused. The depth of that disappointment is all the greater because the first of the film’s three sections counts as some of the best work ever from this noted Australian filmmaker.

 

The opening segment deals with Ned Kelly’s boyhood and Ned, then at the age of twelve or so, is excellently played by Orlando Schwerdt. The boy’s Irish father is a weak man and a criminal and his mother (Essie Davis) is something of a prostitute so matters seem to improve for Ned when he is sent off on a trip to help a bushranger named Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Crowe is on fine form and he makes us see Power initially as a sympathetic if tough mentor until the time when the man’s real character becomes apparent. But the whole of this section is persuasive, powerful and well told finely supported by the admirable photography of Ari Wegner in colour and ’Scope.

 

It is when the time comes to portray Ned Kelly as a young man that the screenplay seems to lose focus. MacKay is a fine actor, as 1917 recently confirmed, but he is not helped here by the lack of real insight into Kelly’s character. Just as the extent of his bisexuality is left vague, there is little or no clarity as to his psychology. We see him as a victim of his upbringing, but there is also a conscious drive within him to embrace violence and his devotion to a mother who had betrayed him is mysterious too. The lack of any clear take on this complex man in the screenplay is increasingly frustrating and prevents us from developing any feelings about him as the drama plays out. Meanwhile other characters come and go episodically but again without the deeper investigation that they call for. This leaves one feeling that the material would really be better suited to a TV series with more time to explore than to a single feature film. These doubts about the enterprise build up, but what counts most against it ultimately is the inexcusably stylised presentation for the Kelly gang’s last stand: here the images become so self-consciously a filmmaker’s indulgence that the siege plays out without generating any emotional response whatever. Just because the childhood scenes are so very effective the longer the film goes on thereafter the more it feels anti-climactic. Whether viewed as a true history or as one version of a life that has taken on legendary status, only the earlier part of Kurzel’s film feels in any way definitive.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: George MacKay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Thomasin McKenzie, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe, Orlando Schwerdt, Sean Keenan, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Louis Hewison, Gentle Ben Corbett, Claudia Karvan.

 

Dir Justin Kurzel, Pro Hal Vogel, Liz Watts, Justin Kurzel and Paul Ranford, Screenplay Shaun Grant, from the novel by Peter Carey, Ph Ari Wegner, Pro Des Karen Murphy, Ed Nick Fenton, Music Jed Kurzel, Costumes Alice Babidge.

 

Screen Australia/La Cinefacture/Film4 Productions/Porchlight Films/Daybreak Pictures/Memento Films/Film Victoria-Picturehouse Entertainment.
125 mins. Australia. 2020. Rel: 28 February 2020. Cert. 18.