True Story of the Kelly Gang is the latest offering by Australian Director Justin Kurzel and opens the New Zealand International Film Festival tomorrow, July 24th.
The first thing you notice about the True Story of the Kelly Gang is that it’s not true. There’s a disclaimer up front, which eases my mind just a little. My own disclaimer is that it’s a long time since I read Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning book, but Peter FitzSimon’s new book is as fresh as, in my mind. I just feel it hasn’t taught me anything new about the Kelly story, but adds more depth and context to what was going on around them, particularly politically.
So what is the truth? And specifically, the truth about arguably the most written about events of Victorian if not Australian history. Young Ned Kelly and his mates, including even younger brother Dan, go rogue after a series of harassing arrests for minor crimes, of himself, his brother and most gallingly, his mother, and range around the Victoria bush, creating some havoc and mayhem but mostly the threat of more. But then policemen are shot and killed, which raises the stakes until Ned can take no more and arranges a “last stand” at the Glenrowan pub.
So, what is the truth? Villain or Hero? Sensitive intellectual or dangerous psychopath? Depends on your perspective, so both/and tend to prevail, and it is this paradox of Ned which Justin Kurzel takes on in his new film, based on the Peter Carey novel, putting a distinctly modern touch to some of the settings, both in music and language, and attempts to bring to visual life what takes authors like Carey and FitzSimons hundreds of pages to cover.
He succeeds in part, because there is neither time or money to achieve more. The story is presented as is the Carey book, as a narrative based on Ned’s own words, in 'letters’ written to his unborn (fictional) child. In three parts, Boy, Man, and finally Monitor, the first part places in context the preconditioning for the outcome, which Ned sums up in his own words: “a man can never outrun his fate, nor the crimes of his past” . This first part, featuring the teenage Ned, losing his father, watching his mother prostituting herself to make ends meet, indentured to Harry Power, is the most successful.
The context of the times, class distinctions between poor Irish settlers/ former prisoners and the landed upper-class, more likely to be English, wielding the power of politics to sustain their view of the world, comes through clearly, as is also the reality that there is not much difference between convicts with conviction and policemen without. Life is hard, indeed for everyone, but subsistence at best is more likely the lot of the Irish “selectors”, allotted poor quality land via ballot, versus the landed gentry granted more favourable and larger tracts through parliamentary manouevres. But even this part of the movie tends to emphasise acts of violence and extremes of emotion, explicit or festering just underneath what was also a life of great banality and oppressive routine.
The second part, Man, shows Ned returning home after being a boy locked up, reuniting with his family, and discovering, not only that his mother’s new husband to be is both a thief and a liar, his young brother Dan has uncovered the “truth” behind the strange behaviour of his late father, and the power behind the cross-dressing Son Of Sieve. Much has changed, but most has not. The police still routinely harass, entrap and abuse Ellen and her family. A seemingly reluctant Ned becomes the leader of his gang, driven by the need to protect his mother and family. His mate Joe Byrne is with him, as is younger brother Dan and his mate, Steve Hart, both aged 19 ( this much is truly true). In one of many engagements with a particularly nasty copper, Englishman Fitzpatrick, who promises to be friend but is never anything but foe, he spies a picture of the USS Monitor, and is inspired by the notion of becoming ironclad.
Which leads to part three, Monitor, and the dénouement which we all know, but in this case is embellished to entertain, and leaves out the excessive good fortune which befell an otherwise incompetent police force, in bringing down the Kelly Gang with minimum loss of life.
Ned Kelly as a boy is admirable portrayed by Orlando Schwerdt. George Mackay takes the lead as the grown-up Ned (scarcely turned 21), and does a fine job, despite the fact that there is no beard. But lots of action and the inevitable downfall of his gang is fast paced, flashy and fraught, unlike the aforementioned banality (of war) which Mackay so effectively portrayed in his concurrent outing, 1917. We see nothing of endless days of tedium while hidden in the bush with nowhere to safely go. But this is film, the medium doesn’t lend itself to tedium. Not in two short hours.
Russell Crowe does a portly job in portraying genial Harry Power, a bushranger capable of switching from grandparenting the young Ned, to demonstrating the power of sudden violence. Essie Davis, ( the Director's wife) probably the best of all, shows the dichotomy inherent in showing great tenderness to her family, and great hatred of those who would oppose and oppress, while succumbing to their needs because “nothing comes free”. And we have interesting cameos from Nick Cave’s son Errol, making Dan Kelly more like Jack White, as well as Marlon Williams, playing the mercurial villain George King, who weds Ned’s Mum, while fathering many elsewhere. At least George can sing, and he does. The power of contract. Our own Thomasin McKenzie continues her stellar rise with another fine portrayal, this time of Ned’s girlfriend Mary.
The music is interesting, lending to the overall postmodern approach. Russell Crowe (Harry Power) kicks it off with some interesting vowel substitution in a ditty devoted to Constable O'Neill. Marlon Williams (George King) of course gets a song, and then there's post punk folk to go with the modern day graffitti.
I watched this film twice, torn between my prejudice towards accuracy in historical drama, and the freedom of art to embellish, exaggerate, ignore and invent in the pursuit of entertainment. But not just entertainment. An entire two hours devoted to the freedom to write one’s own history, which Harry Power allegedly teaches Ned, who in turn is in process of teaching his unborn child. Not to mention his army of Sons of Sieve, whom he exhorts: “Are we going to rewrite history, and are we going to kill some coppers?”
True, all too true, all of it, and some of it. If you like your history to be plain steam pudding, or creamy rich pavlova, then this film is more the latter. Such, of course, is life.