Early on in
the proceedings of Justin Kurzel’s iconoclastic take on Australia’s favourite
outlaw legend, young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt) watches furtively as his
mother, Ellen (Essie Davis doing a feral riff on punk pagan Patti Smith) gives
visiting cop O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam) a blow job in exchange for the
authorities leaving her hardscrabble frontier family alone. Ned’s father, Red Kelly
(Gentle Ben Corbett) is powerless to prevent this transaction. It’s rumoured,
Ned is later told by the charming, predatory O’Neill, that Red likes to ride
the ranges wearing women’s clothing. Later still, Ned finds his father’s red
dress and burns it; even later, he and his titular gang take up cross-dressing
for their own purposes.
masculinity, cowed, proud, manipulated and broken, is torn down, interrogated,
reconstructed, repurposed. Our most indelible hero, bearded, armoured, defiant,
a widow’s son outlawed, is now, as played by British import George McKay,
clean-chinned, raw-boned but androgynous, sexually fluid. He snuggles and
kisses best mate Joe Byrne, played by Sean Keanan, though more explicit homosexuality
is left off screen. Male intimacy and eroticism is foregrounded, even with
regard to the most roughshod characters; young Ned’s early rite of passage,
overseen by bushranging mentor Harry Power (Russell Crowe), involves being
urged to blow a naked and helpless O’Neill’s cock off; the threat of
emasculation is counterpointed by the visceral appeal of actor Hunnam’s nude
form. Ned, hesitant, shoots him in the leg. Later, he and cop nemesis
Fitzpatrick (honourary Australian Nicholas Hoult) admire each other in a
brothel drawing room; Hoult is extravagantly naked.
saying, folks, is that this Ned Kelly is as queer as a three pound note, and
that should really piss off a broad swathe of knuckle-draggers who have taken
the Victorian outlaw as some kind of totem of thuggish blokiness. Working from
Peter Carey’s 2000 novel, director Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant, who
also wrote Kurzel’s 2011 feature debut Snowtown,
have delivered a take on the legend purpose-built to provoke. Historical
accuracy, whether by event, character, or even set dressing, is barely a
concern here; rather, everything is up for grabs. The Glenrowan Hotel, a
foundational part of the mythos, is here rendered as a bare, metal-walled room
scarred with crude graffiti. Stick-and-poke tattoos writhe across the arms and
peak from beneath the shirt collars of coarse, beautiful young men who look
half Wild Colonial Boy, half bass player for a third tier act at Laneway. The
effect is to force the mythical idea of Australian manliness into the same
space as modern notions of the same; outlaws as rock stars, with all that the
notion entails in terms of hedonistic excess and blurred, liminal identities.
David Bowie as Billy the Kid.
that also comes the half-formed, self-aggrandising ideology thereof, full of
crowd-pleasing rhetoric and low on structure and substance. Ultimately, the Ned
Kelly presented here doesn’t stand for anything, for all that he’d like to.
Hell, he doesn’t even know who he is as a person. Over and over again, Kurzel
shows Ned being stripped of choices, opportunity, and agency, forced step by
step into the Ned-shaped hole history has waiting for him. Saving a rich kid
from drowning as a boy, a reward of private schooling is offered; Ellen Kelly
angrily refuses, fearing cultural erasure of Ned’s Irish heritage. He’s literally
sold to Crowe’s Harry Power as an indentured apprentice to outlawry. He takes a
stab at traditional romance with soiled dove Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), but
Ellen disapproves (her class rage only goes so far, it seems). He tries to
foster a rebellion, a nod to the (fairly unlikely, believe me) occasional
notion of Kelly not just as a lawless robber and killer, but a Fenian-adjacent
revolutionary; his would-be rebels desert him. Even his famous last words, we
learn, are not his – at least not in this version of events.
And this is
what’s fascinating – hell, this is what’s brilliant about True History of the Kelly Gang: the
unknowable Ned at its centre, inarticulate, battered and bruised by circumstance
and social forces well outside his understanding, forced step by inevitable step
from Beveridge to Glenrowan to the gallows. It’s the war between Ned Kelly the
man and Ned Kelly the idea, the symbol, the figurehead, of too many
contradictory causes to count. Kurzel manages to simultaneously mount the tragedy
of a man effectively being killed by his own evolving myth and interrogate our
current relationship to that multifaceted myth at the cost of knowing the man,
which is no small feat. It will confound and anger many. Plenty of pundits will
soon be weighing in on whether the “real” Ned Kelly would, could, should, or
did do what we see here, but the key to True History of the Kelly Gang is
understanding that this tension between history, artistry, and ideology is the
entire fucking point.
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