Australian Arts

Ned Kelly

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

12 December 2020

9:00 AM

All the young millennials I know were raging in Melbourne the other Saturday night and so were some of their elders but I found myself staring at an iPad watching the frame-by-frame precision of the great Fred Schepisi film of The Russia House which is John le Carré’s long bittersweet farewell to the Cold War with a crackerjack script by Tom Stoppard and a sweeping cyclorama of the Russia which will never die. And, after that, I watched an impossibly handsome Mel Gibson, back in 1984, as Fletcher Christian riling up in the face of the almost accidental brutalities of Anthony Hopkins’ nervy, conscientious Bligh, his classical Welsh tones made furry by a sort of nautical Bristol burr. This New Zealand effort is no match for Schepisi and Stoppard, with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, but it has an intelligent script from Robert Bolt who wrote Lawrence of Arabia and those other epics for David Lean.

Then, to carry movie masochism to the point of martyrdom, I had a go at Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang which refracts the far-reaching break from tradition of Peter Carey’s novel with George MacKay giving a modulated and boyish performance as a Ned edged into outlawdom by the atrocities of life despite a temperamental mildness, Russell Crowe as an old sadist of rich and magnificent malevolence, Essie Davis as the Oirish Mrs Kelly and Nicholas Hoult – remember him in About A Boy?–– as a credible and finally unkind trooper who tries to make a deal whereby he gets Sister Kate in exchange for granting Joe Kelly’s freedom.

My belated viewing of the latest Kelly epic was not only inspired by the fact that it had been nominated in every possible category for the Australian Academy of Film and Cinema Television Arts Awards (AACTA) but coincided with Brett Whiteley’s Henri’s Armchair actually selling for more ($6.13 million) than the previous top-pricer First-class Marksman by Sidney Nolan ($5.3 million) which presents that iconic helmet with two goggling eyes in the serried ranks of fuzzy gums and what looks like a pathway to perdition or martyrdom.


Ned Kelly has had a fair amount of reverence poured on him since he was hanged moments after he said ‘Such is life’ and within thirty-odd years made it into the great edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1911 one. He has been played by a rockstar, Mick Jagger, a great actor who was also a star with heroic gifts, Heath Ledger, and now in George MacKay’s performance, as a boy envisaging himself as the warrior chief of the Sieve, the supreme Irish rebel against British domination.

Is it the pure kinkiness of Peter Carey’s original conception that gives Kurzel’s Kelly Gang the terrible poignancy of youths almost too young to be millennials riding like elves in tree-laden pale light? This film by the director of Snowtown who went on to make the very traditional Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard is fleet, brilliant and full of staggering cruelty and dreck. This is a ninteenth century Australian bush world which is nasty, brutish and short –– where, for instance, it’s a characteristic touch that Crowe’s old bastard should try to goad the boy Ned to shoot off the penis of the naked trooper Charlie Hunnam.

It’s a world of nightmare moral ugliness Kurzel throws in your face and this version of Carey’s vision has none of the soaring grandeur of rhetoric (and the encapsulated hopefulness that goes with it) of his friend Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore which Bernard Smith said did for our convict history what Michelet had done for the French Revolution.

The true history in this riveting wounded cinematic interpretation is, in contrast, a nightmare from which anyone would try to wake. Its pessimism is all but absolute and is not really relieved by the beauty of the doomed youth, the lads and girls who go like lambs to rape and murder and execution. If it’s a parable of our time it’s a grim one.

The True History of the Kelly Gang is a savage shriek in the face of national mythology but the greatest bushranger film is Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the Aboriginal one from Tom Keneally’s novel.

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