Stringybark (Review)

In 2019 there was much consternation about the new Kelly Gang films that were brewing. The adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, was set to be a big budget extravaganza with many Nedheads expecting to see a burly, bearded bushranger clad in armour with guns blazing on the big screen. The other film project that was getting good press was Stringybark, a small-scale indie production that caught the attention of some notable Kelly-critical commentators thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.

Well, True History fell short of its lofty ambitions. As it turns out, a scrappy, post-modern interpretation of their favourite bushranger full of cross-dressing and bad haircuts wasn’t what people expected when they heard a Ned Kelly film starring Russell Crowe was being made. On the other hand, Stringybark stayed pretty low-key even after its official launch at the Lorne Film Festival. In a way that has actually served it well – a sort of “tortoise-and-hare” way – that means the home audiences won’t necessarily be going in with big expectations of sturm und drang with helmets and Hollywood glitz.

With Stringybark making its way to Ozflix, straight off the bat it must be pointed out that if you go into this expecting a Ned Kelly film you’re going to be disappointed. This is unashamedly a film about the police who were sent to arrest Ned and Dan Kelly for the attempted murder of Constable Fitzpatrick, with particular emphasis on the party’s leader Sergeant Michael Kennedy. It’s a perspective that, frankly, is refreshing after so many variations on Ned Kelly’s response to discovering the police coming after him as part of the bigger scheme of his outlawed life.

It is abundantly clear from the outset that the angle this film takes is that the cops are the good guys and the Kellys are the bad guys. It is a perfectly valid viewpoint to take, of course, given that the police were there to capture men wanted for attempted murder and were shot dead by said fugitives in response. It is a perspective that has its fair share of strident champions – many of whom got involved with the film at the crowdfunding stage and were pushing Stringybark as a game-changer. Given that the filmmakers were not industry professionals, that was a lot of pressure to put upon them and, honestly, they did a valiant job of living up to the expectations of those who were pushing them to be the definitive anti-Kelly portrayal of the police killings.

On a technical level this film isn’t quite where it needs to be, unfortunately. It suffers at times from audio issues as well as camera work that struggles to maintain proper framing. Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow because there’s a lot of movement that obscures the action (this was rife with True History as well, so seems to be more of a stylistic trend in modern films than a fault per se.) That said, given that this is a film made by students on a tiny budget with limited resources it’s an admirable effort and they still manage some excellent work in spite of the rough edges. There are some very inspired shots that demonstrate that there was an aesthetic vision before the thing was put together rather than just a sort of on the fly attempt to craft interesting shots around what was happening on the day. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the shots that appear in this film are some of the best that we have seen in an on-screen depiction of this story thus far.

The score by Simon Rigoni is also a real strength as it is atmospheric and melodic without being overpowering. There is a trend in film scores now to have the music merely tie a scene together so that there’s something interesting to hear when people aren’t talking. Apart from one scene, where the police chat around a campfire, one never gets the sense that the music is ever just there because it has to plug a gap in the soundtrack, and that one exception is really only a result of the way the music is edited in the scene.

Hair and makeup was fantastic with some minor prosthetic work on the murdered police looking convincing without being too gruesome, though given the contemporary descriptions of Kennedy’s body upon its discovery the gore could have been amplified by ten and still been pulling punches. Likewise, the costumes felt authentic even if some of the details may have been off. There was a definite attempt to be as true to the descriptions of what the gang wore, as well as historical knowledge of how police dressed for bush work. It was good to see a film where the police were not shown in their uniforms while hunting the fugitives in the bush. It was also nice to see the correct firearms being used.

The cast were an interesting ensemble. Some performances were definitely stronger than others, Tim Head as Kennedy, Joshua Charles Dawe and Ned Kelly, and Ben Watts as McIntyre being absolutely the strongest in the ensemble. Given the nature of the project you were never going to see A-listers popping up, and everyone who appears does a solid job with their material. The characterisations were one of the weaker aspects of the film as while some characters were en pointe – specifically Kennedy, who feels like the most fleshed out – some others bore no resemblance to their historical counterpart – Joe Byrne being the worst offender in this regard. Those who side with the gang more than the police are going to struggle with this one because the Kelly Gang are outright villains. In fact, I would go so far as to describe them as cartoonishly villainous. They are vulgar and enjoy bullying the police who are powerless against them. While critics of the bushrangers and their supporters would suggest this is accurate, witness accounts do not exactly bear this out (but that’s a discussion for another article, and one well worth having.) Much of Ned Kelly’s more aggressive behaviours, such as driving the barrel of a pistol into someone’s cheek to intimidate them, are given to the other gang members in order to amplify their intimidation factor while Ned seems positively civil by comparison. In fact, Joshua Charles Dawe is probably one of the best on screen Ned Kellys to date, despite the lack of physical resemblance. There’s a nuance to the performance that makes the viewer feel like there’s something bubbling underneath the cruel and bullying exterior and subsequently it’s a shame he gets such limited screen time.

The police on the other hand are much more rounded and sympathetic characters, McIntyre being shown as something of a cheeky jack-the-lad figure that is quite at odds with the bookish and determined McIntyre we see depicted in the ex-policeman’s memoirs and contemporary accounts. An early scene has Kennedy, McIntyre and Scanlan pulling a nasty prank on Lonigan, which is obviously intended to show a sort of “locker room” mentality in the police station. Lonigan here comes across as somewhat oafish and paranoid, which is not an accurate depiction of a man who was known as a very capable officer who had a very justified wariness of their mission, though we do get a great character moment from him in recounting his clash with Ned in Benalla. It would have been nice to get more of Scanlan’s story as he is often forgotten owing to the fact that he neither survived the encounter to tell the story nor did he leave a widow or children to mourn him, but Jim Lavranos makes for a memorable performance all the same.

Some of the more heightened aspects of the ambush sequence are only disappointing because they weren’t necessary. Having the Kelly Gang dropping c-bombs may portray them as uncouth and therefore create a roughness that makes them seem dangerous, but it’s not necessary for making them intimidating. Case in point, Dawe’s Ned Kelly manages to be intimidating while speaking in a mostly civil manner with McIntyre just after Lonigan’s death simply by virtue of the body language employed. Another example of where the heightened drama didn’t quite work was in the death of Kennedy, which is written so as to show Ned Kelly as a cold blooded murderer. Kennedy appears to be in good health despite a cut on his forehead, so it isn’t clear why he would feel like he would need to write a letter for Ned to give to his wife if he dies, let alone for Ned to agree. Ned’s decision to allow Kennedy to write the letter is immediately undercut by his execution of the sergeant without any indication of why. What perhaps worked on paper lost a little something in translation to screen.

While the idea of having the gang appear at the end is actually a really clever one, the lack of motivation for their crimes can be hard to stomach, which is one of the reasons why most interpretations focus on their perspective rather than on the police. It feels like violence for the sake of violence, even though from the perspective of the victims that’s exactly how it would have seemed. This aspect is both one of the biggest strengths of the film and one of its notable weaknesses. It is a strength because it really drives home exactly why the story is being told the way it is, but it is also a weakness because by dehumanising the bushrangers it creates a disconnect that is very jarring. Without any indication of why the gang attack they are no more than soulless monsters that emerge from the wilderness to cause mayhem. To “unperson” the bushrangers makes them no different to the shark from Jaws or the Raptors from Jurassic Park. Perhaps having Ned talk to his gang and explain their plan could have changed that and given some sense of understanding to both sides rather than opting to cut one side out in favour of the other.

Overall Stringybark has notable flaws, but it also has significant strengths. It has enough respect for the history to stick closely to it throughout the majority of the film and weave in details that even the most lauded of Kelly films and miniseries have gotten wrong or omitted. It has a clarity of vision that means that nobody watching can possibly doubt what angle the film is taking. There are plenty of great visuals and performances in the mix as well as a great, understated score. It’s a Kelly film that dares to tell the other side of the story, which in itself is noteworthy. These are not aspects to be taken lightly, especially considering that this is not the work of some Hollywood veteran with tens of millions of dollars to play with. As a debut feature, tackling a historical piece, let alone one as turbulent and divisive as the Kelly story, is jumping into the deep end with lead weights on your ankles so it takes a certain amount of guts to even attempt it. Say what you want about whether or not you agree with the portrayal, or of the directorial choices, one thing that can’t be disputed is that when it comes to taking on as big a task as dramatising one of Australian history’s most controversial events Ben Head is as game as Ned Kelly.


Stringybark is available to rent online via Ozflix HERE

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