On Cinema

Untrue story of the Kelly Gang

For a folk hero this Ned has zero contact with the ordinary Irish folk who will supposedly come to love him, says Christopher Silvester

The story of ned kelly takes us back to the origins of cinema, not just Australian cinema. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), of which a mere nine minutes survive, was the world’s first feature-length film, running to around 70 minutes. When filming the shoot-out, director Charles Tait used the actual metal helmet and armour used by Kelly himself in 1880; when first shown, it was presented by an on-stage narrator who doubled up as purveyor of sound-effects. A digitised restoration lasting a little under 20 minutes was shown at the London Australian Film Festival at the Barbican in 2007.

Another film, The Kelly Gang, followed in 1920, directed by Harry Southwell and starring Godfrey Cass. The same team made True Story of the Kelly Gang (1923). Southwell lived until 1960, soon after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the first television version of the tale. Some people think Ken Goodlet gave the best-ever portrayal of Kelly in that TV version. Incidentally, Goodlet played Superintendent Nicholson in Tony Richardson’s 1970 film version.

Richardson, who had risen through the British New Wave of kitchen-sink dramas in the early 1960s and had won the Oscar for Best Director in 1963 with Tom Jones, produced the best big-screen version of the Ned Kelly story, starring Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Richardson had wanted Albert Finney for the role, but, with Finney unavailable, he chose Jagger: “I persuaded myself there was a way that his body, with the speed of an urban street cobra, could be transformed into an outdoor bushman,” he wrote in his memoirs. “It was a mistake. The face was great, but the body seemed frail and at times spastic.”

Richardson considered the film a failure, describing it as a “stillborn child … The shape and features were all there, but not a breath of life.” Richardson was too hard on himself. His Ned Kelly was crisply shot in black and white by cinematographer Gerry Fisher and still has a charm and a freshness today, with both lyrical and gritty passages, an exciting climax, and elements of satire. Jagger, sporting an Amish beard, invites sympathy for his devil and when condemned to hang addresses the judge (through the camera), vowing to meet him again “down there”.

There have been other versions — a 1951 movie, The Glenrowan Affair, starring Bob Chitty, an Australian Rules football player, and a four-part TV mini-series in 1980, The Last Outlaw, starring John Jarratt, which has its fans.

Not long after Peter Carey published his Booker Prize-winning novel True Story of the Kelly Gang in 2000, the Irish director Neil Jordan scooped up the film rights. But in 2003 the Australian director Gregor Jordan made Ned Kelly, based on another novel, Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, and starring Heath Ledger as Kelly, Orlando Bloom as one of his sidekicks, and Geoffrey Rush as a sinister police commander. It was low energy, as The Donald might say.

So now we have True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel, whose 2011 true-crime thriller The Snowtown Murders is one of the creepiest films ever, and whose Macbeth (2015) gathered critics’ plaudits. “Nothing you’re about to see is true,” it announces at the start, but True History has alienated many Australians who regard Kurzel’s exercise of poetic licence as too brazenly heretical.

Kurzel’s movie stars the young English actor George Mackay, he of 1917, who plays Kelly as a beardless youth with a mullet haircut as well as both daddy and mummy issues — mummy is played as a banshee by Kurzel’s wife Essie Davis. The production design and art direction make real locations seem almost abstract, while the brooding score creates a mood of angst and hopelessness.

There is a Flashman-type villain: Nicholas Hoult as an Irish constable, though with a cut-glass English accent, representing the establishment. And then there is the persistent cross-dressing. In the opening aerial shot Ned’s father flees on horseback in a dress; later, Ned’s younger brother wears a ball gown stolen from a brothel for a rustling raid; and later still, Ned’s gang embrace the wearing of frocks so as to put the fear into the constabulary by appearing crazy.

As an Aussie might say, Kurzel seems to have a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. The film is partially in period and partially not, like an avant-garde student production — or perhaps the budget for costumes just ran out.

In one scene a bare-topped Ned (above) standing in front of a Union Jack backdrop seems to channel punk rock, and the legendary shoot-out gives us Ned’s point of view through the visor of his helmet as if he were playing a computer game. Yet for a folk hero this Ned has zero contact with the ordinary Irish folk who will supposedly come to love him. It is a peculiarly soulless interpretation of a national myth.

The capture of Ned Kelly is Australia’s equivalent of the gunfight at the OK Corral, but with the moral hierarchy reversed. Here, Kelly is the outlaw hero while the police commander is no Wyatt Earp bringing the law to Tombstone but an agent of the colonial oppressor.

Apart from movies, the tale inspired a series of paintings (1946-47) by Sidney Nolan, one of Australia’s greatest twentieth-century artists, who had read the Jerilderie letter, Kelly’s 8,000-word apologia-cum-manifesto, which was not published in full until 1930 and which was also the inspiration for Carey’s novel: “His [Kelly’s] language came in a great, furious rush that could not but remind you of far more literary Irish writers.”

Tony Richardson’s film is definitely worth buying on DVD and you should look out for Stringybark (2019), a one-hour student “short” about the most notorious incident in Kelly’s criminal career, but told from the policemen’s vantage. It cost a mere $31,450 to make and is reportedly both accurate and affecting.

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