No other figure in history captures Australia’s obsession with the outlaw hero persona as perfectly as Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly – the 19th century bushranger whose final uttered words find themselves inscribed in the flesh of more than a handful across this land: “Such is life.” His life and death have indeed indelibly marked the cultural landscape of this country and beyond – the world’s first feature-length dramatic film was 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, and Peter Carey’s novel, from which this film was adapted, won the Man Booker Prize in 2001. Kelly’s name is infamous in this country, his acts reviled and admired in seemingly equal measure, and his legacy points to the complicated relationship that Australia has with its dark historical roots. As Carey did with his book, Justin Kurzel seeks to unpack all of this and more with his film True History of the Kelly Gang.
This work backs the all-too-popular assertion that Australia is a young nation, but there is only an element of accidental truth to this. We are youthful in our blind arrogance, enough to believe the air and attitude of our land to be epitomised by bandit folklore less than a couple of centuries old, all whilst having forcibly claimed ownership of a continent populated by the world’s oldest living culture. This speaks to the primary issues with how this country treats its myths and legends: Australia is not young, and our frontier was not formative. We are an immature nation of considerable age that has yet to make proper reconciliation with its past. The unjust oppression of the Irish colonists that acts as a trigger for the events of this film rings false when compared to the atrocities committed against the Indigenous population in the hundred years prior and since. True History of the Kelly Gang is not necessarily a worse film for not addressing this, but in attempting to examine and unravel the machinations of our collective social consciousness, given the liberties taken from the source material already by Kurzel, it feels like a missed opportunity to peer even further into the depths of Australia’s black heart. It’s an even bigger misstep when you realise that Carey himself understood this, commenting in response to an interview question in 2003 about Australia’s convict past informing its future: “It is not just our convict past, but the two big issues in our lives is that we began as a convict colony and the other is that we invaded another person’s country and took it from them and then pretended that we didn’t.” Carey’s work gave Kelly a decidedly racist perspective. Kurzel’s film doesn’t even feign interest in the issue.
True History of the Kelly Gang forgoes a timely story in favor of a tale as old as time – that of man’s tumultuous battle with himself. It is during the first act that the film finds its greatest measure of success, as a young Kelly seeds influence from a triumvirate of men whilst his determined mother seeks to ensure he is kept firmly under the thumb of family loyalty. The familiarity of this particular story, the transition from boy into man, is the only comfort Kurzel allows during Ned’s formative years. The inherent harshness and cruelty of the Australian environment is captured magnificently, and echoes in the actions of the men and women who work the land on both sides of the law. A vivid picture is painted here, demonstrating how both nature and nurture worked against Kelly from an early age, setting into play an array of juicy dramatic conflicts that inform the struggles of his later years. It is certainly compelling, and undoubtedly relatable to many a man, but it is not treading new ground. We’ve been told this story time and time again.
Much has been said of a subversive twist in this tale, though, as if the injection of cross-dressing into the Kelly legend and the mere intimation of homosexual relations makes True History of the Kelly Gang a punk-rock piece of queer cinema. I would suggest that it’s not quite as progressive in this space as it would like to think. It unfortunately plays on the age-old trope of sexuality by proximity. The concept of mates as mates in the context of this film, whilst admittedly revolutionary for some conservative thinking types, is really no more insightful than Ben Carson’s ill-advised 2015 insinuation that prison makes people gay. The treatment of its characters penchant for frocking up fares no better. Again, in the context of the film, it resembles a perversion of the natural order, with its justification positioned as a psychological battle tactic, designed to strike fear into the heart of pigeon-hearted men. I hoped that True Story of the Kelly Gang had something new to say in its supposed deconstruction of masculinity, but I truly think that too much heavy lifting is required of the viewer to reach a suitable conclusion in this respect, with its seeds strewn across infertile ground. For some, representation alone may be good enough, but I think the film missed a glorious opportunity to make a truly explosive statement instead of meekly poking around the edges of sedition.
In its final act, True History of the Kelly Gang sees the boy-turned-man transition once more into the guise of a Monitor – a class of battleship alleged to have inspired Kelly’s infamous suit of primitive, but nonetheless effective, armour. The care taken in establishing the catalysts for Kelly’s character growth earlier is unfortunately absent in this section of the film. Kelly’s switch from lucidity to lunacy is abrupt and unearned, leading to a finale that is admirable in its aesthetic bravery, but difficult for me to purchase. The motivation makes sense on paper, but the degeneration of Kelly’s mindset is the issue for me, occurring within a relative flash, and clashing awkwardly with how he had been treated by the film throughout the first two acts. This about face is also reflected in the abandonment of what had been the film’s key themes up to this point, as if in acknowledgement that the blood and the guts and the glory of that final stand at Glenrowan was all we cared about all along. And perhaps it is. Would Kelly’s life fall subject to such an examination were it not for the manner of his death? I think not, but unfortunately True History of the Kelly Gang fails to connect the dots between the man and his myth in a meaningful way.
Ultimately, it feels like a film that is less than the sum of its parts. It desperately wants to explore the make-up of our country, but lacks the composure to maintain a steady gaze and take a truly unflinching look. It provides provocation, but without penetration. It walks with a confident swagger, but the stride is that of youth untested. There is an undeniable level of quality to the contributions made across each of the film-making departments, but Kurzel can’t quite bring it all together to form a cohesive whole. True History of the Kelly Gang ends up feeling as confused in its identity as that of the nation it represents. Such is life.