“Nothing you are about to see is true” flashes the opening title of this daring take on Australia’s most famous bandit. As if to underscore the point and confuse the audience further, “true” remains onscreen while the other letters fade away, only to be replaced by the film’s full title. What can we really know of Ned Kelly and his rebellion? Very little, seems to be the consensus, but with this latest dramatization, Australian director presents a new and sometimes shocking perspective on the man.
The facts that we can be sure of are asserted early on. Ned’s upbringing in the barren impoverishment of the Australian outback is quickly established, as he witnesses his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) being ravaged by the corrupt local constable in order to keep the family fed for another month. His inadequate father is a constant source of shame, while his mother nourishes and neglects in almost equal measure. Her decision to unburden the household of another mouth to feed and earn some money in the process by selling Ned into an apprenticeship with the outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe) underline the ultimately selfish nature of her character.
For it’s certainly a selfish world that Ned has been born into. After his employment with Harry comes to an abrupt end behind bars, he’s released back into a world that is at once familiar and different. His brothers have grown, his mother is betrothed to an American half her age and he himself has become transformed into a wiry specimen of muscle and anguish. However, the world’s indifference to his survival continues unabated, as he finds out to his detriment when beguiled by the charming constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult). When Fitzpatrick reneges on a promise, the touchpaper is lit for the Kelly brood to rebel and Ned leads the charge into hiding. After his mother is arrested for striking a policeman, Ned proposes a bargain to Fitzpatrick (her freedom for his own), but the officer’s sneering refusal sends Ned over the edge into full-on, devil-may-care psychosis.
It’s a depiction of Ned rarely seen before, and certainly not one portrayed in Peter Carey’s Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name that’s ostensibly the source material for Kurzel’s work. In the book, Ned is seen as very much as a product of his environment and one against whom the odds are impossibly stacked, making his eventual status as an outlaw a foregone conclusion. While those elements are certainly retained for Kurzel’s interpretation, there are several key moments when it’s Ned’s own agency, rather than any extenuating circumstances, which instigate trouble. Both Orlando Schwerdt and George Mackay give ardent performances as Ned as boy and man, demonstrating that far from being a folk hero who fought for the poor, he was simply a character ruled by his own inflamed passions.
It’s an interesting decision and one which presents a novel take on a controversial character about whom we can’t really know anything for sure. But while it might make for some tense, testosterone-fuelled scenes that are fully complemented by some stunning visuals from Ari Wegner, it does mean that the narrative itself becomes less compelling and Ned’s fate less emotional than it could have been. Nonetheless, it’s a full-blooded and original outlook on one of the most enduring myths of modern history, in Australia or elsewhere.