“True History of the Kelly Gang” (MA) ****
THIS is the 16th film (including teleplays and a mini-series) purporting to tell the story of Ned Kelly, whose position in Australian folk-lore, however appalling, is undeniable.
I’ve not read Peter Carey’s second Booker-Prize-winning novel that Shaun Grant adapted into an uncompromising screenplay for this intensely dramatic film. Who its handful of fictional characters are is not significant.
What’s important in the narrative is a sad truth. For £15, Ellen Kelly (a cracking portrayal by Essie Davis) has sold her 11-year-old son Edward (Orlando Schwardt) to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe, recognisable only by his characteristic vocal timbre behind a forest of whiskers) to learn the trade. Power’s influence on young Edward cannot be overlooked. But the film implies other influences on Ned’s adult behaviour that folklore hasn’t put on the table except perhaps for scholars and historians, for which we should be thankful for Peter Carey’s research.
The film runs for 124 minutes. Director Justin Kurzel has vested it with wonderful visual values. One frequently deployed and meaningful example transforms the beauty of the Victorian high country into nothing but tall, gaunt, leafless trees filling the screen and by coincidence evoking the current bushfire disasters.
The film raises important questions by subtle implication rather than full-on display. Was Ned (English actor George MacKay) gay? Did he try to divert attention from that by making gang members wear women’s rather than men’s clothing. Did he have autism spectrum disorder, undiagnosable in those days? Is it true that his last words were “Such is life”? Did Ellen really wear trousers, possibly a metaphor for her (implied) part-time sex-worker occupation?
Is it a good movie? It’s one to admire for its cinematic craft, to ponder, to compare with the folklore that Australians (except perhaps the people of Glenrowan) have been fed since Ned was hanged in 1880.
He was never one of my heroes, any more than was the sheep-stealing swaggie camped by a billabong. Did I like it? I’m glad to have seen it. Truthful or not, it tells important parts of Ned’s story with more credibility than did its predecessors. Now I’m going to read the book.