Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Every Man Should Be an Author of His Own History" vs. True History of the Kelly Gang

Ma (Essie Davis) and son (Orlando Schwerdt) Kelly
(Justin Kurzel, Australia, 2020, 124 mins)

Justin Kurzel's grimy, punk-rock take on the life of Australian outlaw Edward "Ned" Kelly, which follows previous versions starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, picks up where Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale left off. While Kent set her brutal, bruising revenge tale in 1820s Australia, Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin's Creed) shifts 40 years ahead, but the Irish characters still have the chips stacked up against them and the British have all the power.

Kurzel begins his loose adaptation of Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel with Ned as a 12-year-old. It's 1867, and our feisty anti-hero (played by the very good Orlando Schwerdt), grandson of Irish immigrants brought to Australia by force, lives in the middle of nowhere--the Colony of Victoria--with scrappy siblings, a tough mama, and a pop who likes to wear frocks. Kurzel has as much sympathy for John "Red" Kelly as his wife, Ellen (Essie Davis, star of Kent's The Babadook), which is to say: none at all, but it sets up the idea that Ned is--or will be--the "true" man of the family.

When a wealthy neighbor takes a shine to the kid and offers to pay for him to attend boarding school, Ellen puts her foot down, telling her, "You're trying to bleed our culture out like you did the black fella before us." She adds, "Only the Lord should take my children from me--not no Englishman." Clearly, she views boarding schools the same way Native Americans did in the States in the 19th and 20th centuries. And with good reason.

"Every man should be an author of his own history." / IFC
After Ned's father takes a powder, various men come to call, including the oily Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and bushranger Harry Power (a scruffy Russell Crowe relishing a juicy role). When Ned asks Harry why he's writing his memoirs, he explains that his story is the one thing even the most impoverished man can call his own. "Don't leave it for the English to tell it. They'll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds." (Ain't that the truth.) Harry introduces Ned to a life of violence with a side of alcohol and profanity. At first, he comes across as a big, burly teddy bear of a man, especially when he teaches Ned's family a jolly anti-police song about "cunts" and "cunt-stables," but he's a vile creature who procures goods through cold-blooded murder. It's the first sign that this won't be a story about good vs. evil, but about evil vs. more evil.

Just as O’Neill once imprisoned his father--for a crime Ned committed--he locks away the son, too. By the time he gets out, Ned (now played by George MacKay) is no longer a boy. He's a bare-knuckle boxing, mullet-headed adult who returns to find that his mother has taken up with a younger man (New Zealand folk singer Marlon Williams). Cue up the Freudian frustration, which subsides when Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, returning to Australia after his memorably unhinged turn in Fury Road) introduces him to hooker with a heart of gold Mary (Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie). Like Ellen and Harry, Ned distrusts the British, and fully expects Fitzpatrick to betray him--and that's exactly what happens.

Getting the band, er gang, (back) together. / IFC
The betrayal spurs Ned to form a gang and hit the road. Along the way, he asks his brother, Dan (Nick Cave's son, Earl), why he likes to fight in frocks, much like their late father. "Men are most afraid of what they don't understand," Dan explains, adding, "Nothing scares a man like crazy." I'm sure it was unintentional on Kurzel's part, but it's worth noting that Earl's mother, Susie Cave, is a dress designer. Less intentional, however, is the fact that Nick and his father, Colin Cave, have been famously obsessed with--and creatively inspired by--Ned Kelly and his exploits. Just see John Hillcoat's Nick Cave-scripted western The Proposition for proof (seriously, do see it, it's a magnificent piece of work).

If the subjugation of the Irish by the British is one theme of Kurzel's film, the other is this: What makes a man? Ned is physically tough, but he's sexually inexperienced, possibly bisexual, and loathe to take another man's life. In 2020, this wouldn't disqualify him from manhood, but in 1880, Shaun Grant's script argues, he doesn't quite measure up. That changes once he gets a taste for killing. Now he's an outlaw, and it will only be a matter of time before the cops catch up to him. This isn't a spoiler. Not just because it happened in real life, but because it's as inevitable as the death spirals depicted in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two possible influences (Nick Cave makes a welcome cameo appearance in the latter).

The film's final act revolves around Ned and his gang of frock-sporting, cop-hating, shamrock-worshipping "Sons of Sieve." For protection, they wear scrap-metal armor like rinky-dink Lost in Space robots. And this is the point at which the film goes off the rails, possibly because Kurzel takes so long to get to it that it feels anticlimactic no matter how many strobe light and other effects he throws at the screen. The time we spend getting to know the relatively innocent, pre-outlaw Ned proves more compelling in comparison.

Ned's pal and possibly lover (Sean Keenan) at center. / IFC
By the end, Ned has earned his mother's respect. He's a man. And all he has to show for it is a death sentence. The tragedy isn't just that it's a Pyrrhic victory, but that it fails to stir the soul the way Kurzel and Grant surely intended. I don't believe it's McKay's fault as much as their rather single-minded, charmless conception of the character. MacKay, who proved a more engaging lead in Mathew Warchus's Pride and Sam Mendes' 1917, gives it his all, but once Ned turns to savagery, he comes across as more petulant brat than righteous antihero, even if he never had a chance and even if he had brutal men like O’Neill and Power as mentors.

For what it's worth, MacKay is better in every way than the inexplicably-cast Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's misbegotten 1970 biopic, which jettisons Ned's childhood in favor of a rustic Paint Your Wagon-style musical (even Jagger's singing doesn't measure up; folk isn't exactly his forte). I haven't seen the 2003 Gregor Jordan film with Ledger, which also drew from a work of fiction, but it didn't meet with an especially enthusiastic response. Further, not one of these gents looks anything like the real Ned Kelly.

Since Kurzel's film has been making the rounds, critics have complained that it's a distorted version of actual events, but the joke is on anyone who would take the title literally. First, the film is adapted from a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. Second, it opens with a title card proclaiming "Nothing you're about to see is true." Third, the disclaimer after the end credits clearly states, "True History of the Kelly Gang is a work of fiction." It only makes sense to judge it on those terms. As such, it doesn't quite work, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth making or that it isn't worth seeing.

For all its faults, it's no small feat that the film looks good (it was shot by In Fabric's inventive Ari Wegner), it sounds good (Kurzel's brother, Jed, provided the spare, moody score), and Essie Davis offers her usual excellent value, though her performance as Ellen Kelly won't make anyone forget the fabulous Miss Fisher or the prodigiously stressed mother she played in The Babadook. But it does mean you're better off reading Peter Carey's novel, a rip-roaring work of historical fiction that truly does its namesake proud.

Rent True History of the Kelly Gang from Amazon Prime or Apple TV.

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