The last time we saw anything of the notorious Kelly Gang on screen came towards the end of Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton's very fine revisionist Western of 2017, where an outback pub's boozier patrons were shown giving their hollered approval to the 1906 silent The Story of the Kelly Gang. What Thornton was getting at there, I think, was something critical about this legend's enduring capacity to rouse a rabble, in this case an audience with starkly nativist tendencies, oblivious to the very real dramas going on around them; the silent film was a warm-up not for some heroic last-reel intervention, but the attempted lynching of an indigenous ranchhand, and a brutal and shocking murder. The gang's exploits still stir the blood, yet the days of depicting its leader Ned Kelly as a wholly romantic figure, an outback Robin Hood - as was the case when Heath Ledger took the title role in Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly of 2003 - would seem long behind us. This week's True History of the Kelly Gang, the director Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Peter Carey's novel, tallies with last year's exacting The Nightingale in its suggestion Australian history is a far more complicated and unlovely thing than has generally been taught; it states, in no uncertain terms, that it entailed a lot of fucked-up behaviour, and that, over time, this begat only more fuckery still. It's possible that Screen Australia have been funding pretty-pretty period dramas, yet to be exported. Kurzel's film is not one of those, although its filth and perversity still come to feel healthier than the Fellowesisation of history - a purging of national sins, a flushing out of toxins, rather than any attempt to cover them up.
Filth and perversity there is; barely a corner of the screen survives unsullied. By extending this much-retold narrative to cover Kelly's dysfunctional childhood, Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant can touch upon adultery, crossdressing, sexual jealousy and abuse even before we get to any killing; a cow can be seen wandering through a boudoir at one point, and a horse will be led into a kitchen. Carey's point, ported over wholesale here, was that such unrestrained beastliness was how this family of Irish settlers sought to define themselves against the civilisation they were loosely (and then, most often abrasively) in communication with. You might reckon normality of a sort presents itself, in the form of Russell Crowe as Harry Power, who moves in with Ma Kelly (Essie Davis) upon her husband's death and shapes up as a rough-edged protector of sorts to her brood - another of this actor's appreciably chewy, lived-in mid-career supporting roles. Yet even Harry thinks nothing of singing off-colour songs around the little ones, and his idea of father-son bonding is to take young Ned to a whorehouse with an eye to shooting the cock off the local English constable (Charlie Hunnam). As presented here, Ned's coming-of-age is also Australia's coming-of-age: an inculcation of bad habits and other issues that went on to plague this landscape as one generation of yahoos passed their worst characteristics onto the next.
For Kurzel, True History of the Kelly Gang itself represents a maturing. I found this director's 2011 breakthrough Snowtown authentically chilling, but also possessed of that punishing brutality young tyros sometimes feel they have to inflict on an audience in order to get noticed; his 2015 adaptation of Macbeth is best remembered for its carefully cultivated look and atmosphere than any sophistry viz the text. There are a few jejune borrowings here: a Lynchian stroboscopic flicker out in the woods, a late attempt to strap the camera to Ned's face that aims for Mean Streets Scorsese and winds up a little too close to Mitchell and Webb's Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar. Yet standing on home turf, Kurzel appears more assured in his storytelling than ever, finding just enough light to illuminate the darkness into which his Kellys blunder. (Literally, during the phantasmagoric coup de cinéma of the siege itself.) Snowtown, that least sentimental of educations, served as a bloody runthrough: this director knows just how quickly things can go from bad to worse, and ten years on, he's even more experienced in his direction of actors. Crowe, the sometimes variable Hunnam and Davis make valuable contributions; what's especially striking, however, is how Kurzel fills out the gang themselves, with youngsters cast for their ability to represent not the past, but some timeless present. With their dreadful haircuts, shitty tats and flimsy hand-rolled cigs, Kurzel's kids could stand for any collective of subcultural shitkickers who've emerged over the past century, doing what they do because there's nothing else to do round here, and because they haven't been counselled otherwise. (The sense of continuity is strengthened by the presence not just of former Romper Stomper Crowe, but also Nick Cave's son Earl, the very spit of his dad.)
The casting of the emergent George Mackay (1917) as the elder Ned indicates somebody behind the scenes still wanted to frame this figure as a boy next door: Mackay is touchingly gauche in his interactions with his brothel-sourced sweetheart Mary (Thomasin McKenzie). Yet Kurzel positions such proximity as the problem: we've witnessed what those around this lad were capable of, and we can only wonder how much of that has rubbed off on his psyche. The tension here hinges on how long Ned can cling to that boyishness before becoming the reinforced killing machine of legend; it's a thin skin he slips off as the armour goes on, and the eyes we see through the slit of his helmet suggest not guilelessness but PTSD - they're the eyes of one who's seen too much, too young. This isn't just the Ned Kelly story, though, and Kurzel succeeds in linking the tale of this one straggly-arsed punk kid to the wider story of Australia via the fascinated attention he and cinematographer Ari Wegner pay to the landscape: a recurring image finds Kelly on horseback, charging through a forest that seems to represent some Australian eternity, or the national imagination. (In either venue, he cannot be stopped.) From the very first lines of Grant's script - Ned penning a latter to his own child, bemoaning "the lies and silences of history" and lapsing into the self-mythologising he was prone to in the run-up to his famous last stand - the movie shares the postmodernist Carey's alert interest in what this story means, and what it has meant to so many of Kelly's countrymen, even as it does its level best to abrade it of any residual glamour. There are useful questions at large in this history, pertaining to how our stories are told, and by whom, and how the gaps and elisions in our shared heritage open the past up to all manner of abuse. As Harry Power puts it, ruminating on the importance of telling one's own story, and indirectly offering another of the film's retorts to the blandness of the Working Title-produced Ned Kelly: "You can't leave it for the English to tell, as they'll fuck it up and steal the proceeds."
True History of the Kelly Gang is now playing in selected cinemas.