One of the most anticipated Australian films at the moment is the film adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang directed by Justin Kurzel. The film, currently in production, has been through development Hell (a term that refers to films that have gone through a long and torturous process in order to be made) which was covered in a previous article that you can read here. Now that it’s underway, what do we know?
As previously mentioned elsewhere, Ned Kelly will be played by English actor George Mackay (Captain Fantastic), Ellen Kelly by Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Joe Byrne by Sean Keenan (Lockie Leonard), Constable Fitzpatrick by Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) with Earl Cave (son of musician Nick Cave) as Dan Kelly. In addition we have Mary Hearn (Ned’s fictional love interest) played by Thomasin McKenzie, Steve Hart played by Lewis Hewison, Mrs. Shelton played by Claudia Karvan (Puberty Blues) and Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess) as Thomas Curnow. It should also be noted that Travis Fimmel and Dacre Montgomery appear to have left the project, likely due to scheduling conflicts but a reason was never given.
Headlining the cast is Russell Crowe (Gladiator) and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), though neither is playing a major role. Both actors have been in Victoria filming, Hunnam spotted by many adoring fans around Wangaratta. While Crowe has been confirmed as Harry Power, Hunnam’s role is still mysterious, though it appears that he is stepping in to fill the void left by Travis Fimmel who left abruptly just before production began. Fimmel was slated to be playing Sergeant O’Neil, a fictional policeman who appears at the beginning of Carey’s book, who was characterised as an older man who tries to put the moves on Ellen Kelly while her husband is absent (and cops a mighty slap for his trouble) and proceeds to cryptically tell Ned about what will later be revealed to be the “Sons of Sieve”, an Irish group of rebels that Ned’s father was a member of (in this narrative but not in reality). O’Neil is the first police antagonist in the story and bullies and mocks Ned but disappears within the first twenty pages. Possibly though, Hunnam could be playing Bill Frost, who is a major character in the book and whose scenes occur during the Harry Power section of the story over the course of multiple chapters.
Crowe meanwhile baffled many by posting videos of himself combing his beard and singing ‘In the Sweet By-and-By’ (one of Ned Kelly’s favourite songs). Those in the know were excited to get a glimpse of only the second ever on-screen incarnation of Harry Power (the first being Gerard Kennedy in The Last Outlaw in 1980). This week Crowe also posted another video, again featuring him singing ‘In the Sweet By-And-By’, to show off his new haircut and short beard. Crowe’s singing does raise the question of whether he will be singing in the film, Crowe having tried a career as a musician several times in his younger days and also having to sing for his part as Javert in Les Miserables. On the plus side Crowe seems to be excited by his part in the film and hopefully this translates well to screen. Power was portrayed in 1980 as a jolly highwayman with sparkling wit and charm by Gerard Kennedy but the historical Power was far more irascible and intimidating, and though he never shed blood or took a life he could scare a coachload of people into doing exactly as he said. In the book Power is characterised as an erratic, verbose alcoholic with an explosive temper. It is unlikely that Power’s relationship with Ned’s uncles Jack Lloyd and Jimmy Quinn will be featured given how time consuming it is.
There are many characters that appear in the book whose parts have not been announced yet including Red Kelly, Captain Standish, Superintendents Nicolson and Hare, Sergeant Whelan, George King and James Whitty. Whether these characters, vital to the Kelly story in history and also in Carey’s book, are translated to screen or amalgamated in some way (as with Superintendent Hare in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly) will be interesting to see.
No official stills have been released to date though some sneaky set photos have been published from the location shooting. These shots show us the costumes for Harry Power and Ned Kelly from the portion of the story where Ned is a fifteen year old. Crowe sports a tweed suit with a printed shirt and a striped waistcoat as well as a very authentic bushy grey beard. This Harry Power is clearly a far neater dressed individual than his historical counterpart. A shot of Crowe’s foot from his own social media shows off a shiny black boot that looks a far cry from the oversized boots curling at the toes Power favoured due to his bunions. This gives us no insight, however, into how Power will be portrayed on screen.
The other character we have had a glimpse of is Ned Kelly. Since arriving in Australia George Mackay has been seen sporting a rather distinctive mullet. The first image of him in costume confirms that this is part of the look for his version of Ned along with a bright red shirt and sand coloured moleskin jeans. Rather than resembling fifteen year old Ned Kelly, this costume resembles the hair and outfit of the Sharpies, a violent youth gang from the Melbourne suburbs during the mid to late twentieth century. Some assumed this was merely an outfit from Mackay’s own wardrobe but a look through Carey’s book confirms that Ned should be wearing a red shirt and moleskin trousers at this point in the story – expect to see him sporting elastic sided boots as well. It will be interesting to see what look they go with for an older Ned – will he get the famous pompadour and beard combo that everyone associated with the bushranger?
Of course, no Ned Kelly film is complete without a rendition of the iconic armour. For the Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger films, efforts were made to replicate the real suits, the former letting the faithfulness slip quite a bit when they decided Joe Byrne’s helmet with Dan Kelly’s backplate would look better as Ned’s helmet and breastplate among other alterations. To date, the armour seen in the 2003 film is the most accurate seen in a feature apart from the 1906 film that used Joe Byrne’s actual armour for a costume, the suits very closely resembling their real life counterparts save for a few aesthetic flourishes. New Zealand born Guido Gouverneur, a horticulturalist, was given the task of creating Kelly Gang armour for this film. The result, made from sheet metal, bears a reasonable resemblance to the real armour at a distance but is definitely far from identical. The armour is almost emblematic of what this production threatens to be – from a distance it seems almost passable but up close it doesn’t hold up.
So far the hair and costumes are underwhelming, not demonstrating any discernible care for period accuracy or accuracy to the characters. It will be intriguing to see how the police uniforms look as well as the hair and costumes for the other gang members and the Kelly family. Will True History of the Kelly Gang make the oft repeated mistake of putting the police at Stringybark Creek in their uniforms? Will the police at Glenrowan also be in uniforms? These two incidents, extremely important in the story, involved police in plainclothes, not uniforms that were ill suited to bush work. Unfortunately, to date The Last Outlaw is the only screen depiction to adhere to this fact. The 1970 film had the police in plainclothes at Stringybark Creek but uniformed at Glenrowan, while the 2003 film had uniformed police in both incidents. It will also be interesting to see if we get enough of the Jerilderie operation to see the gang in NSW trooper uniforms. For a Ned Kelly film to feel right it needs to look right and thus far it’s not looking right at all.
After a number of delays and Travis Fimmel quitting the film, production began on 22 July 2018, with the bulk of location filming being undertaken this month. The filming took place around Wangaratta. Filming has since moved on to Clunes where a dance hall scene is set to film, callouts for extras having gone out before production began. Clunes was used in the 2003 Ned Kelly due to its main street retaining many old fashioned buildings and having underground powerlines, thus retaining the overall appearance of an old frontier town. It is probable that the Euroa and Jerilderie scenes will be filmed here as they were for the 2003 film.
The screenplay for True History of the Kelly Gang has been written by Shaun Grant who previously wrote Justin Kurzel’s debut feature Snowtown. As in all book adaptations there will be some straying from the source text as the tricks and style that a book format enables don’t always translate well. What will be interesting to see is whether it strays closer to fact or closer to fantasy as a film that trades on the name “true history” carries with it an expectation that it tells the real story.
Production is still underway, hopefully publicity shots or production stills are released soon to give people a sense of what is happening with the production. A trailer will not become available until post-production is underway which is likely several months away at this stage. What people can expect as further details emerge is a film that strays away from historical fact given what we’ve already seen. The real test will be in how faithful the film is to the novel from which it takes its name. Carey’s book relies very heavily on the people, places and events from history he uncovered in his own research to tell his vision of the Ned Kelly story. Whether this production not only stays faithful to that approach but conveys Carey’s themes of the unreliable narrator and subjective truth could make or break the production.
In other news Ben Head’s short film Stringybark is still in development with Ned and Dan Kelly to be played by Joshua Charles Dawe (37) and Shane Palmer (26) respectively. Head’s film will tackle the killings at Stringybark Creek in a revisionist interpretation that positions the Kelly Gang as the villains, a move that is likely to cause great consternation with the vocal members of the pro-Kelly community. Little other information has been released about the film.
The third Kelly production in development, Glenrowan, recently scouted for locations, which featured in videos on the film’s Facebook page, and is in the process of attaching actors and investors to the film. The Walking Dead actor Callan McAuliffe is in negotiations to star as Ned Kelly, other publicly available details are scarce at present but updates can be found on social media.