True History of the Kelly Gang (review)

What is it about we Australians, eh? What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?

It took Justin Kurzel, on the back of two financial and critical flops, seven years to get enough funding to make this film, and then the budget got halved just as they went into production. They didn’t even have enough money to buy adequate rice to feed Russell Crowe, resulting in the Hollywood heavyweight storming off set after a rant at the caterers. Not exactly an auspicious start for what was slated to be one of the highest profile Australian films of the decade. With big name stars Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult, as well as rising stars George Mackay and Thomasin McKenzie to draw the crowds in, and based on an award-winning and internationally lauded novel by one of Australia’s most popular authors to boot, this should have been a grand slam and something to write home about – and it is, but for all the wrong reasons.

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In this review we will be discussing major details of the film, which some refer to as “spoilers”. If you want to go into the film blind, I suggest you rethink the decision to read reviews before watching the movie. There’s a lot to unpack here but, in short, this is not the film we wanted and is likely to cause distress amongst many potential viewers in a number of ways. It is incoherent both visually and in terms of plot; some key technical aspects of the film are little better than amateurish; and the whole thing is underscored with utter antipathy towards essentially the entirety of the audience that would want to watch a Ned Kelly film. This film has no reverence or even a modicum of respect for history, nor indeed the source text. To call it a mockery gives it too much credit.

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But, before we get into the unpleasant things, let’s discuss the tiny glimmers of light in the Lovecraftian murk. The cast are phenomenal. George Mackay, if given a better script, could have easily become the essential on-screen Ned Kelly. He absolutely embodies the man and is utterly magnetic whenever he’s on screen. He comes across as a director’s dream; readily able and willing to do whatever the role requires of him, whether that be chanting obscenities at police or dancing like a monkey after a brutal boxing match. Despite being an Englishman, he nails the Australian accent, which lends an unusual slice of authenticity to the character. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe certainly earned his hefty paycheque with a delightfully camp portrayal of Harry Power that leaves the audience wanting more. His personality shift from jovial and fatherly to brutal and nasty veers the closest to the source text of any roles that make it into the film. Essie Davis is powerful as a twisted, Kath Pettinghill-esque interpretation of Ellen Kelly in tight pants and hair beads. Rather than a hard-done-by Irish widow, this version of Ellen crackles with religious fervour and primal fury. Her intensity and effortless transition from adoring mother to bloodthirsty harpy and back throughout the film demonstrates just why Davis is one of the best actresses on the scene. Charlie Hunnam gives a great performance as Sergeant O’Neil, despite his often incomprehensible accent early on. There’s an authenticity and believability in his performance that leads one to believe that he had crafted a narrative for his character that wasn’t present in the script, just so he had some idea of how to play the part from scene to scene. The three Kelly Gang members – Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Dan Kelly (Earl Cave), and Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) – are all engaging and entertaining in the fleeting glimpses we get of them, but they are criminally underused. For a film with “Kelly Gang” in the title, there’s bafflingly little screen time dedicated to the titular gang. Cave and Hewison in particular had the potential to be some of the best characters in the film, especially given their characterisation in the source text, and both have flashes of brilliance in the limited moments where able, but spend most of the time they are on screen out of focus, out of frame, or in the background. Sean Keenan creates a version of Joe Byrne that wears his heart on his sleeve and carries the burden of fully comprehending the gravity of Ned’s bloodthirsty actions when his friends don’t, which is another underplayed aspect that could have made for compelling character moments in a better written film. When he breaks down in tears after seeing the slaughter at Stringybark Creek that results from Ned ignoring his pleas, or when he’s slapping Ned for dooming them all at Glenrowan, one can’t help feel for the guy. Thomasin McKenzie is a delight as Mary Hearn, portraying the character as far more tender and overwhelmed by the crazy world she has been whipped up in than comes across in Carey’s novel, which makes her far more endearing. Orlando Schwerdt as a young Ned Kelly portrays a gravitas and strength well beyond his years in a career-making performance that will see him go places if there’s any justice in the world. Nicholas Hoult impresses as Fitzpatrick, who in this version is an English “Libertine” type who frequents a bizarre brothel, tries to lure Kate Kelly into a paedophilic relationship, and becomes Ned’s arch-enemy, who apparently can analyse the man better than anyone else, yet still struggles to catch him. Hoult displays excellent comedic chops, but unfortunately the humour is frequently misplaced and falls flat through no fault of the actor. Other standouts were Jacob Collins-Levy as Thomas Curnow, and Claudia Karvan as Mrs. Shelton, both of whom are the most realistic human characters in the piece. It is clear that all of the performances were crafted with passion and care, but one can’t help but get the sense that the film we got was not the one they signed up for.

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The costumes are quite interesting to look at and the design work is absolutely superb, with Mackay’s signature look of scarlet shirt, hobnail boots, moleskins and monkey jacket a standout with a contemporary look and old world vibes. In conjunction with the mullet it makes him look like a Sharpie (a Melbourne street gang from the mid-20th century), which seems to match up with the very 1970s aesthetic given to young Ned. The same for the police uniforms and Harry Power’s suit, which create a sense of being of the time while being very contemporary to the present. Alice Babidge definitely created a unique style that should have made the film iconic, but the outfits rarely get shown off and there seems to have been far less effort put into the rest of the production design to reinforce the visual flair. Of course, there are some head-scratchers like Joe Byrne’s outfit of short shorts, knitted cardigan, Akubra hat, Blundstones and nothing else. Poor Sean Keenan had to wear this Manpower Australia costume in the snow for most of the film. Then there’s the glowing police ponchos that make the cops visible in the Glenrowan scene but make them look like the ghosts of the press photographers from particularly rainy football games. The wardrobe was evidently shaped by the garbled visual sense Kurzel’s wanted to portray, and one cannot fault Babbidge for rising to the task and creating beautiful costumes within the enforced guidelines – just like any decent professional.

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The casting of Marlon Williams as George King is clearly to get a known singer on the soundtrack, because apart from singing he has very little else of significance to do (excepting a baffling monologue about habitually abusing a dog), and Russell Crowe even manages to get a filthy song in so he can show off his vocals, primed after his years in TOFOG. Jed Kurzel’s score is droning and tense, which works really well to create a tense atmosphere in some of the quieter scenes, but it isn’t very memorable and comes across as the Aldi version of the score to The Proposition. The much promoted punk songs performed by the actors playing the Kelly Gang pop up far less frequently than they deserve, and if there had been more of that it would have really tied the punk aesthetic together and made for something truly memorable, but instead it really just gets used to make some transitions seem slightly more interesting than they really are.

As for the use of sets and locations, the decision to make all of the buildings look like repurposed sheds from Bunnings is odd to say the least. The recurring visual motif is slot shaped windows (because obviously that’s an homage to the armour) but it isn’t interesting enough to warrant lauding it. The Glenrowan Inn interior looks like the public toilet at Abu Ghraib, complete with half a dozen people wearing bags over their heads. The environments used do not reflect the historical locations at all, even when they film in places like Old Melbourne Gaol, which they digitally altered, and seem to have been picked for their remoteness, sparseness and harshness on the eye. The Kelly family live in a swamp, Harry Power lives in the snow and the Glenrowan Inn is built in the middle of a dried out pasture. Several shots are lit in such a way that it resembles a stage set from a production at the Malthouse Theatre rather than a film shot on location. Perhaps the praise many gave this amdram styling and emphasis on stylised visuals with little to no substance indicates the state of arts criticism in the present day more than anything else in relation to this film.

The biggest talking point though has been the dresses. In the film Dan Kelly and Steve Hart wear dresses because they heard about a band of Irish rebels called the “Sons of Sieve” who used to do unspeakable things to the English, and the implication is that the adoption of the quirk occurred during Ned’s time in prison for shooting Sergeant O’Neil. In Carey’s book Ned beats the snot out of the pair for wearing the dresses and tells Steve Hart to leave their camp in Bullock Creek believing he is a corrupting influence on Dan. Ned’s anger towards the dresses in the book stems from the triggering of memories of being bullied by Sergeant O’Neil over Red Kelly being one of the aforementioned rebels. This literary incarnation of Red had murdered a man through the activities of the rebels, but used the pig stealing story to cover up the real reason he was sent to Australia. In Carey’s writing this is important as it invokes historical rebellion in Ireland as well as touching on the reality that many Irishmen were sent to Australia as political prisoners – details that don’t factor into the film version. But further to that point, Red’s deliberate efforts in the literary version to obscure his own history is one of the driving factors in Ned’s decision to write his memoirs in the first place. In the film, however, the “Sons of Sieve” are more like a cult than a rebel band, even to the extent of Ellen forcibly telling Ned “You’re a Son of Sieve!” as if that should have some significance to him. Then with Ned and Joe adopting the dresses and blackface themselves, it goes completely against what Carey established in the book about how the very notion of the rebels and their way of doing things was offensive to them. This point, above all else, highlights that Kurzel not only did not understand his source material, but also leapt upon any opportunity to draw a link between machismo and homoeroticism – especially when he has Fitzpatrick talking about the joys of having sex while wearing a dress. This, of course, also ties in with the undercurrent of sexual tension between Ned and Fitzpatrick, as well as between Ned and Joe. Ned and Joe can barely keep their hands off each other and always seen about two seconds away from snogging. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is introduced admiring Ned’s physique during a boxing match, which he later compliments him on with bedroom eyes. Of course, this doesn’t gel with Ned’s relationship with Mary Hearn, not the Oedipal undercurrent of his relationship with Ellen. Furthermore, it should be noted that the female Kellys in the film are prone to gender bending too, with Kate Kelly sporting short hair and boyish clothes, and Ellen favouring a Patti Smith inspired pants and jacket. There is something very Freudian about the director’s fixation on having Ned Kelly act in a very queer manner, but there’s also an intellectual dishonesty in effectively shouting “no homo” by dismissing it as merely the intimacy of strong friendship, deliberate attempts to signify madness, or the result of opium use. It’s a situation that requires either full commitment to the idea or none at all.

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Let’s talk technical. There are two extremely important aspects of film that can make or break a production: cinematography and editing. On both counts this movie demonstrates that you can get a job in the industry even if you’re not great at what you do, so long as the director or ptoducer likes you. The camera movements leap between pointlessly kinetic and totally static without rhyme or reason. If you aren’t motion sick by the ten minute mark it would be miraculous. There is no discernible attempt at mise en scene, with shots either too close to the actors, too cluttered, poorly framed or boringly sparse indicating that the sets were not built around what the audience should be seeing, but rather the shots were dictated by a checklist – wide shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up. The lighting ranges from stark and bright to gloomy to the point that it’s like watching with a case of optic neuritis (that is when there’s not pointless strobe lighting). As for the editing, the lack of flow between scenes and even within them owes much to the incomprehensible attempt at slapping together shots without any respect for continuity. Constantly throughout the film characters completely change position from shot to shot, which is something even amateur editors know not to permit. The effect is that the attentive viewer is distracted because, for example, Ned will be holding a pipe and looking out of frame then suddenly holding nothing and looking at Fitzpatrick. It’s one of the cardinal sins of editing and it cheapens the whole enterprise.

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On a script level, there’s nothing of considerable substance on show. The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation. Any resemblance to Carey’s book comes across like it was taken from SparkNotes about the novel rather than an actual reading of the literature. Characters are, at best, one note and rudimentary, leaving it up to the actors to do the heavy lifting. Any point to the story is almost impossible to discern until Curnow’s closing monologue makes clear that the whole thing is about how Australians make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves because they put criminals in pride of place for a lack of decent human beings of their own to look up to. In the book, Curnow is a self-important elitist who gives his comments about Jefferson and Disraeli in a train as he and his family are being escorted away from Glenrowan by police to protect them from reprisals from the Kelly Sympathisers. It is portrayed as a snide aside taking a dig at the colonials. In the film, it is delivered as a grandiose speech to an enormous crowd in the State Library of Victoria who give it rapturous applause. While this transposition may seem trivial, it actually underscores the whole point of the film succinctly. By making the statement indicating that Australians are intellectually inferior a lauded public statement rather than a quiet comment it suggests that Grant and Kurzel see this as the key message of the film. The book’s key message is actually about the subjectivity of “truth”, and plays with the concept of what is true or not by blending pure fiction with historical fact (Carey spoke in glowing terms of Ian Jones’ work, much of which is directly paraphrased in the novel). On the other hand, none of this idea seems to have occurred to the duo of Grant and Kurzel, though perhaps earlier drafts of the screenplay were quite a lot closer to the source text in this way.

The dialogue ranges from the needlessly prosaic to coarse and vulgar. As a result, many of the snatches of dialogue lifted from Carey’s book feel out of place, especially when voiced by Mackay as Ned, as it results in a lack of character consistency. The overuse of the words “fuck” and “cunt” render the words meaningless, which is probably yet another jab at the “bogans” that Kurzel and Grant appear to have a chip on their shoulder about. While these words were used at the time, it is unlikely anyone would have spoken in this way without being arrested. It comes off as merely a hamfisted attempt at making the Kellys and their ilk come across as yobbos.

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One thing in particular that makes the film a slog is that there are no likeable characters. Every single character is crude, violent, insane or effete. Harry Power blows two men to kingdom come so he can steal their guns and a trinket box from their mail coach, then later tries to make Ned shoot Sergeant O’Neil’s penis off (the latter, admittedly, derived from a similar scene in the novel). Ellen Kelly acts like a deranged priestess, grooming her eldest son to be some kind of “chosen one” and allowing Dan to adopt the garb of the cult as if prepping him to become a zealot for her mysterious cause. Her absolute belief that Ned worships her to the point of being willing to sacrifice himself for her is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, especially when she gives Ned a briefing on how he will be executed and how he is to behave during it to make her proud after a kiss that is far too passionate for a mother and son to share. Then, you have Fitzpatrick as a predatory paedophile who has no qualms in grooming girls, threatening to shoot babies, or attempting to rape Ellen in a train carriage. That he somehow ends up leading the pursuit for Ned despite only being a constable is a stretch of reality that is almost passable. Joe Byrne is off his face throughout most of the film (the only one to date that depicts him using opium) but he seems to be the voice of reason nonetheless. His most memorable moment is his impassioned monologue where he tries to convince Ned to escape to America because they have donuts there.

In terms of the characters that were left out of the film completely you have people like Aaron Sherritt; Tom Lloyd; Wild Wright; Ned’s siblings Maggie, Jim, Grace, Annie, Alice, Ellen and Jack (though an unnamed baby is featured); all of the senior police officers like Standish, Hare, Ward, Nicholson and O’Connor; all of the native police and on, and on. The character of Bill Frost, a major character in the book, is amalgamated with Sergeant O’Neil to justify Charlie Hunnam’s time and wages. The inclusion of cabaret singer Paul Capsis as a transgender brothel madam isn’t out of place in this film, but one has to seriously question why more of an effort wasn’t made to allow him to use his exquisite voice, which is what he’s famous for.

As for Ned, he seems to be four different characters rolled together. At first he’s a young boy who is more mature than his years out of necessity. He’s headstrong and assertive but still prone to the deep emotional trauma that his lifestyle would leave on any child. Then he’s a wild man who punches people for the entertainment of others and gets high on the adrenaline before doing a monkey dance and howling. Then he’s a quiet, unassuming young man who is awkward around women, unsure of his sexuality, suspicious of most men and resentful of his mother. Finally there’s the Ned that we see at Glenrowan who is utterly unhinged and unpredictable. One second he’s mumbling about how there’s errors in the parsing of his writing, then the next he’s bashing tables and throwing chairs, then he’s back to writing. This is the same Ned that finds the (unnamed) Sergeant Kennedy dying in the long grass after Ned ambushes the police, waits for him to stop moving and then hacks his ear off with a pocket knife. No doubt this queer, violent and unhinged portrayal will be welcomed by certain individuals that have a particular aversion to the popularity of Ned Kelly.

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The mystery of why Ned has blonde hair in the film becomes apparent when we see that Red Kelly is thus called because he wears a red dress, not because of his hair colour. All of the Kelly family have brown or black hair except for Ned, who shares his golden locks with Sergeant O’Neil who seems unusually affectionate to young Ned, and swears to look after the family when Red mysteriously dies in custody (and is somehow taken back to the family in his red dress, which we had seen Ned burning earlier). Just what it is that Kurzel was trying to imply by having this lovechild subplot that amounts to nothing is unclear, but it is one example of the many aborted themes, motifs, subplots and characters. Throughout the film things that have been set up as being of note go nowhere. A good example is Ned using a locket he stole as a bullroarer in the first act is mirrored by Ned spinning a rope while breaking in a horse in the second, but is never followed up. George King simply vanishes, as do O’Neil and Harry Power. Not enough effort is made to demonstrate how cause and effect shape the three acts (Boy, Man and Monitor), which results in Ned suddenly going bonkers and dressing in a sheer dress and recruiting an army of teenagers to help him commit mass murder. This “army” also amounts to nothing as mere minutes later, when they are supposed to join the gang at Glenrowan, they just never appear. There’s no scene showing the children throwing away their armour upon realising their folly or anything, just an absence. It would not surprise if huge chunks of the film were cut at the last minute to conform to the running time that cinemas demand in order to fit more advertising in at screenings, but, regardless of the excuse, this tendency to not bother following up on threads or connect ideas is the biggest flaw in the film as it compromises any attempt to justify many of the creative decisions.

Modern films, of course, require at least a couple of scenes that rely heavily on CGI, and this is no different. Of note, we see Ellen Kelly blow the brains out of a CGI horse with a shotgun. We also see the gates of Melbourne Gaol blown apart by an American Civil War ship (“The Monitor”), the most baffling aspect of which is why Melbourne Gaol is partially submerged. The final bit of CGI that really stands out is in the hanging sequence. Rather than using the actual gallows for the hanging, Kurzel decided he would rather they push Ned over the railing to hang him. For this, they filmed next to the actual gallows (out of shot, naturally) and used CGI to make the gaol look bigger, as well as put a wooden beam across the walkways so that Ned can dangle in the middle of the gaol. There’s nothing wrong with using CGI to achieve what cannot be achieved practically, but one has to wonder why they chose to do things like set the gaol gates in a river.

From a historical perspective, apart from the obvious elements, there are a great many baffling things. A prime example is the inclusion of “Mad Dog Morgan” who Harry Power and Ned Kelly find in the bush. Morgan is portrayed as a craggy old man who has been lynched to death, tied halfway up a tree with his testicles cut off and shoved in his mouth. Despite the fact that Morgan wasn’t an old man, nor was his corpse tied to a tree with its own genitals hacked off and shoved in the gob, there’s the issue of Dan Morgan having been killed four years before Ned even met Harry Power. There is only one bank robbery shown, depicted with Joe Byrne, still dressed in hot pants and Blundstones, scrambling in the snow for a handful of crumpled banknotes, while inside Ned orders the bank manager to publish his letters. In fact, the sheer amount of snow in the film is baffling, considering that Australia is not exactly known as a winter wonderland. The only Aboriginal we see is Jack Charles as a waiter and there are no Chinese characters of note, despite their huge presence in the Kelly story and Australian history, though we do see some Asian characters as prostitutes in the brothel sequences. There is a ball scene that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have a point other than to make Mary Hearn cross paths with Ellen Kelly and George King, and to show Fitzpatrick trying to get groom Kate Kelly into a sexual partner. This sequence features a number of extras wearing animal masks and costumes with a strong Eyes Wide Shut vibe. The meaning of these creative decisions is rarely easy to discern, but Kurzel has demonstrated time and again in his filmography that he only cares if his films it look cool.

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In the end, the best things you can say about this are that there are some wonderful performances and that it might cause people to rethink their attitude towards letting writers and directors have Carte Blanche to use historical figures to secure an audience upon which to push their own agendas. There is a supreme cognitive dissonance in the text, which tries all it can not to be a Ned Kelly film but reminds you at every opportunity that it is one (usually with slotted windows). This is an utterly misanthropic and mean spirited attack on not only the historical figures on both sides of the law, but also anyone that takes an interest in them. The majority of those praising this postmodern deconstruction of Ned Kelly are doing so out of a sense of solidarity with Kurzel, all of them of opinion that only their intellectual interiors have an interest in this story. It’s the typical modus operandi of the “intelligentsia”. It leaves one at the end of the grim spectacle with just one question for Justin Kurzel:

Who hurt you?

True History of the Kelly Gang is in selected Australian cinemas until Australia Day, when it will premiere on Stan.It will be in UK cinemas from 28 February.

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