February 2020

Arts & Letters

Kills, frills and Kelly aches: Justin Kurzel’s ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’

By Shane Danielsen
The Australian director brings a welcome sense of style to the unusually malleable story

The arrival of a new Ned Kelly anything, be it book, film, play or even opera, is bound to provoke questions. Chief among them might be “Really? Another one?”… but this, I concede, is a less than charitable view. More useful, perhaps, to ponder precisely which version we’ll be getting, such is the unusual malleability of this particular tale.

There is after all a feeling, unexplained yet oddly persistent, that Poor Ned somehow belongs to all of us: urban and rural, young and old, the bogan and the bohemian alike. True or not, he’s certainly about as close as White Australia comes to a foundational myth – and as such is obliged to sustain multiple, often contradictory readings. Was he a victim of colonialism – the hapless plaything of vast socioeconomic forces – as many revisionist historians would have it? A clear-eyed political revolutionary, bent on wealth redistribution – i.e., the Marxist line? Or just a callow, violent little thug? Studying his exploits feels a little like being trapped in a 1980s humanities department: pick your favourite theorist and get cracking.

If nothing else, the young fugitive had an eye on posterity, judging from his primary communiqué to the authorities, the Jerilderie Letter of 1879. “Dear Sir,” it begins, “I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future.” It’s a terrific, electrifying opening, and the voice that follows, over 56 handwritten pages and some 7300 words, is hardly less compelling – by turns despondent (“I don’t think there is a man born could have the patience to suffer it as long as I did … and yet in every paper that is printed I am called the blackest and coldest blooded murderer ever on record”), epigrammatic (“A Policeman is a disgrace to his country, not alone to the mother that suckled him”) and defiant (“if I hear any more of it I will not exactly show them what cold blooded murder is but wholesale and retail slaughter”).

The run-on sentences, the tension between bravado and bathos, between world-weariness and a jangling, desultory energy, anticipate the equally bloody outlaw-fictions of Cormac McCarthy; no Australian could read the exploits of, say, the kid in Blood Meridian, and not be reminded of their own young killer in the bush, blundering his way towards immortality.

He is, in short, nothing if not slippery – and once you accept this proposition, the way forward becomes clear. Having consciously written himself into history, Kelly today seems less a flesh-and-blood man than a text for interpretation. Nothing would therefore be more redundant than merely another straightforward account of his life. Thankfully, this is not what director Justin Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant have given us.

Adapted from Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, True History of the Kelly Gang (in cinemas and streaming on Stan) is what might be described as a qualified success. Not the equal, admittedly, of 2011’s Snowtown, Kurzel’s feature debut – also written by Grant, and still, by some margin, the best thing either has done. (Indeed, I sometimes think it might be the last great Australian movie to date.) Yet the director seems in control of his material this time, in a way he wasn’t always in his previous two films, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed.

That’s not to say there aren’t lapses of focus here, or occasional longueurs – more than most, this is a film of almost minute-by-minute pleasures and frustrations. But it undeniably has Things On Its Mind, and, like any halfway ambitious adaptation, is prepared to sacrifice certain other elements in order to foreground them.

Weirdly enough, one of the chief losses is its protagonist, who’s never been as remote or unknowable as he’s rendered here. This, I should stress, is not necessarily the fault of the actor tasked with portraying him. Wild-eyed and bantam-thin, George MacKay turns in a big, show-stopping performance. But while his Kelly doesn’t lack for motivating forces (mam’s a hoor, times are tough, and the English are bastards), his actual character – his psychology and appetites – remains obscure, perhaps even to the actor himself. MacKay struts and howls with gusto, and Kurzel gives him a lot of space; the result should be a tour de force. Yet somehow it never achieves the power, the pure charismatic menace, that Daniel Henshall displayed in Snowtown, and he barely raised his voice.

Some viewers may be disappointed, but that’s probably inevitable. When it comes to actors in this role, your preference is a lot like your favourite Doctor Who: audiences tend, by and large, to stay loyal to the first they encountered. For some it’s Heath Ledger, glowering through Gregor Jordan’s dour, dutiful 2003 version, inspired by yet another novel (Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine) and determinedly “realistic” in every aspect but its rendering of facial hair. (Seriously: there’s some comedy bumfluff in that thing.) My parents’ generation, to their shame, had Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson’s 1970 farrago, all bee-stung pout and Quaker beard, the whole thing loopy in a “We’re doing acid, darling!” kind of way – right down to songs by Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, those noted chroniclers of the Australian bush.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an altogether different beast, at once closer to and further from the facts of the case. Kelly’s brothers and sisters barely register; his fellow gang members remain ciphers. Only the presence of a corrupt constable (the typically excellent Nicholas Hoult) seems to disturb Ned’s calm, their antagonism crackling with a palpable, if undeclared sexual tension. And this leads us nicely into the film’s real preoccupation, since – again like Snowtown – this is at heart a dissection of Australian masculinity. By far the most commented­upon aspect of the production was the decision to garb the Kelly Gang in women’s frocks – an apocryphal detail borrowed from Carey’s book that serves as both a subversion of machismo and an acknowledgement of the perennial otherness of the immigrant underclass.

Carey strove in his novel to ventriloquise the voice of the Jerilderie Letter – to mimic the peculiar cadences and idiosyncrasies of Kelly’s syntax; the result – what James Wood, in The New Yorker, termed “a private orality” – was entirely appropriate to its status as a folk-legend. And Kurzel, nothing if not respectful of his source text, aims for something analogous. The style may not be entirely original: there are echoes, for instance, of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, thankfully absent that film’s rich-girl posturing. But there is a style in play, a sensibility that announces itself – sometimes a little too showily, I grant you – as “directorial”. And for that alone, we should be grateful.

I’ve written before about the impoverished visual language of most Australian cinema – a baffling failure in a country whose landscape (and light) routinely offers up wonders. But for the most part, a workmanlike mundanity prevails – a strictly functional anti­aesthetic, drawn from Old TV and the hangover of British realism. The filmmaking of our island nation has proved remarkably immune to contamination by influences from Europe or Asia; consequently, we have no Claire Denis of our own, no Pedro Costa. No Wong Kar-wai or Lucrecia Martel or Gaspar Noé – virtually no one at all, in fact, who seems either interested in or capable of extending the visual possibilities of the form. (Which might just be tolerable if our scripts were excellent, or if our movies had something new or noteworthy to say about the culture and these troubled times. But they’re not, and they don’t.)

That a fellow critic could come out of True History of the Kelly Gang and sniff that it reminded them of a music video only highlights, for me, the degraded terms of this debate. We’re trained to be suspicious of anything that seems to be trying too hard – but we also lack adequate points of reference to analyse particular successes or failures. And while there are undeniably moments here when Kurzel’s grip weakens – when his aesthetic becomes untethered to character or incident, existing purely for effect – there are also some nightmarishly effective sequences. None more so than the climactic shootout at Glenrowan, which he renders in starkly expressionistic terms: a line of troopers arrayed in what looks like phosphorescent robes, negative figures in inky blackness, punching beams of white light into the shack in which Kelly and the remnants of his gang cower. It’s powerful and arresting, and one of the few moments I can recall in recent Australian filmmaking where I felt struck by the presence of something actually, undeniably cinematic.

Did it make me overly forgiving? Maybe. Snowtown haunted me for weeks afterwards; I was surprised and a little disappointed by how quickly this one faded in my memory. Perhaps because its pleasures, like its deficits, remain fixed at a purely surface level. It’s a thrilling and sometimes enervating ride, but it doesn’t go especially deep – I suspect because, however daring it may wish to be, any Ned Kelly film in 2020 can only say so much that we haven’t heard before.

The day after viewing it, I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to look at some of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly paintings. On a wall nearby hung a few of Fred Williams’ You Yangs series – still, to me, the definitive rendering of the Australian landscape – but Nolan’s sequence, more famous, also seemed the more profound. Perhaps because the artist understood that the simple, indisputable fact of Kelly – his existence, in that particular place, at that particular moment – rendered the other, more commonplace details of his story pretty much irrelevant. Literally iconic, as radically simplified as a West African totem, Nolan’s outlaw is a black glyph, silhouetted against the sand and sky. (“Had I robbed, plundered, ravished and murdered everything I met my character could not be painted blacker.”)

However, looking again, I realised that I’d remembered the paintings wrong. I always thought the black was glossy – that, in the right light and from the proper angle, one might almost see oneself reflected in it. It’s not. Though thickly applied, it’s oddly flat – a void into which one’s gaze is drawn and finally engulfed. And it made me think: we’ve been searching for ourselves in Kelly for an awfully long time, now. Perhaps it’s finally time we looked away.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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