Last Friday, The True History of The Kelly Gang, a drama/crime film directed by Justin Kurzel (who also directed Macbeth (2015)) was released. The film is an adaptation of the book by Peter Cary, the plot is described as –
“Set against the badlands of colonial Australia where the English rule with a bloody fist and the Irish endure, Ned Kelly (George MacKay) discovers he comes from a line of Irish rebels called the Sons of Sieve, an uncompromising army of cross dressing bandits immortalized for terrorizing their oppressors back in Ireland. Nurtured by the notorious bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) and fueled by the unfair arrest of his mother, Ned Kelly recruits a wild bunch of warriors to plot one of the most audacious attacks of anarchy and rebellion the country has ever seen.”
The film is loosely about true events although the film states in the first frame that nothing you are about to watch is true then continuing ironically into the next slide with the title stating that it is a ‘True History’. Although the film is about the Australian outlaw and bushranger, the film focuses more on the questions of who is telling the story, why they are telling it and questioning whether it is the truth after all whose to say what is the truth. It deals with misinformation and appropriation of history in the context of the time of one of Australias most legendary figures (in which there is a lot of speculation surrounding it). Ned Kelly is revered as a hero due to his defiance against discrimination and corruption but he was also a convicted police murderer – the film looks at how figures of history are perceived based on the perspective that is given. In this film Ned Kelly ‘writes his own history’ in writing to his unborn daughter suggesting that in order to acquire the truth we must also write our own and share our own personal perspectives.
I saw the film at Picturehouse, Fulham Road and there was a Q&A with George Mackay who plays Ned Kelly and Earl Cave who plays one of his brothers, Dan Kelly, afterwards. Many people in the audience who asked questions were Australian which made me and my friend, Helen, who I went with think even more about the importance of a film like this one because as British people we had not heard a lot about Ned Kelly. Whereas for Australians, Ned Kelly is this icon whose stories are legend a little like our Robin Hood or America’s Jesse James. And yet the Australian history is also a lot to do with British history – it was the Irish convicts who were sent over with English guards who often were violent and ruthless. One of the questions we asked was what the actors had learnt about the actual true history of the Kelly Gang. They said that a lot of the research they did was more into the Irish background of the family and into Irish politics in the late 1800’s. Mackay told how when speaking to an Irish guide before filming that he realised how little he actually knew of Irish politics beginning to talk about the ‘Protestants and the catholics’ and then realising that his knowledge ended there. Similarly, Helen and I thought about how little we knew of a country who is in part a part of Great Britain and a country that is so close to ours. We are given select pieces of history growing up, never given the full picture or the multiple perspectives that history has.
In the Q&A, the actors also brought up their nationalities – both are English although MacKay did seem to try to push the fact that he has some Australian heritage. It’s interesting because this also adds to the fact that English people are still playing a part in telling Ned Kelly’s story. Perhaps Kerzel purposefully cast the film in order to show that change still needs to take place.
Ned Kelly is portrayed in a very human way looking at him as a child (played by Orlando Shwerdt whose performance is phenomonal, he completely embodies the characteristics of older Ned ) and showing him becoming a ‘man’. The older Ned is played by MacKay who is also excellent in it, physically embodying the character (if you have seen the film you’ll know what I mean when you see the part in front of the Union Jack) and adding a level of emotion you wouldn’t expect contrasting a very masculine presence with a much softer inner one.
The film also stars Russel Crowe as Harry Power, a character that acts as a little comic relief in the film and acts as Ned Kellys teacher on how to be a ‘man’ and the gang leader he was going to become.The film also focuses a lot on portrayals of Australian masculinity, it shows these gang members who wear dresses into battle claiming that nothing scares a man like seeming feminine or seeming in madness.
I thought that there were quite a few similarities with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this regard. Like Hamlet, Ned Kelly in this film goes seemingly mad in order to deal with the situation that has been presented to him – both characters have to detach themselves in order to take action. Also like in Hamlet there are a lot of deaths, and this is quite a gory film (given an 18 rating for a reason) showing explicitly how some of the characters were killed.
Due to this violent and chaotic approach critics on Rotten Tomatoes have said that
“Its unusual approach won’t be for all viewers, but True History of the Kelly Gangtakes a distinctively postmodern look at Australia’s past.”Rotten tomatoes (81%)
I would agree with this as I know some people might find some of the scenes to gory or too explicitly violent. Helen and I did leave the cinema feeling a little baffled by it but in a good way I think because it really made you think as a viewer about what you had just seen. Afterwards we had to sit down to have a chat and unpack it – personally I love films that give that affect because they really make you think and have an impact on you.
Overall, this was a really great movie that I feel everyone should watch even if its just to get the message of it. I truly have never seen a film like it, a film that demands so much from its audience; demanding for you to not be escaping within its world but to be wary of the fictional quality of the story. A mindset that is so important for now in our world of ‘fake news’ and rapid consumerism of so called facts.
- (For more about how technology disrupts the truth you can read my blog post fact or fiction here or there is a great article written by the editor of the guardian, Katherine Viner, here)