Late in Justin Kurzel’s film of Peter Carey’s novel, the schoolmaster Thomas Curnow (Jacob Collins-Levy) – who was partially responsible for the thwarting of the outlaw Ned Kelly’s last big scheme and thus his arrest and execution – addresses an august body, and wonders why the country should elevate a horse-thief and murderer above all others to be its most famous Australian. The matter is never settled, but Kelly was – like Jesse James, Bonnie Parker and (perhaps) Jack the Ripper – canny enough to write to the newspapers (or get others to do so) and build up his own legend, arguing that he was a revolutionary or a Robin Hood representing his mostly Irish tribe of rural rangers against British oppression rather than just another ‘thieving Kelly’. Australian cinema has often turned to this subject matter – the world’s first feature film was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), and later films have cast Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as the gunman – who went into his final battle wearing distinctive homemade armour with a buckethead helmet.
Carey and Kurzel aren’t exactly revisionist, but this is the most impressive Kelly movie to date – with a sinewy, seething performance from George MacKay as the adult Ned, and equally remarkable work from Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Russell Crowe and Thomasin McKenzie as the outlaw’s variously demented mother, lawman nemesis, outlaw mentor, and prostitute baby-mama. It’s divided into three sections – boy, man and Monitor (for the ironclad warship that inspired the armour) – and shows Ned emerging as a near-legendary figure through his own violent efforts, but also because he reflects the fancies and fantasies of those around him, and is willing to embrace a strange fancy dress tradition of outlaws rampaging in frocks to impress upon their enemies that they are terrifying madmen (though also, it’s hinted, because they get a sexual thrill out of the travesty). In the shoot-out climax, Kelly wears us much lace – which isn’t bullet-proof – as metal plate, and his iron shell is as much a trap as a protection.
In its plot outline, it’s the same outlaw story told about Dick Turpin, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Dillinger and many others … hard childhood (with Orlando Schwerdt as young Ned), early crimes, spells in jail, the gathering of a band of allies, a twisted relationship with the constable of the district, a crime spree, increasing folk hero reputation, last stand, and final drop. Kurzel makes interesting choices, like limiting the actual robberies to minor farcical scenes, and often pulls back to observe figures on horseback racing through a desolate outback or sits still at a distance as if watching from ambush as action takes place in dirty, ugly shacks thrown up in the middle of a nighted plain. But he also gets in close, and does a lot of POV shots of carnage and chaos – in the first scene, Ned peeps through a slit in a corrugated iron shack to see his mother servicing a corrupt policeman (Charlie Hunnam), and we keep getting letterbox shots of his eyes, which set up the finish in which the angle is reversed and we look out through the window of the inn where he’s holed up to see lines of torches and then ghostlike glowing white hoods approaching as the authorities close in and then through the slit of his helmet as he whirls around while his gang – including brothers and his best mate – are cut down.
Kurzel’s previous films are the grim true crime drama Snowtown and the Michael Fassbinder version of Macbeth, both of which swirl around and inform this take on the outback Western, which has a fire-blackened post-apocalypse feel … as if this were some sort of deep historical prequel to the Mad Max movies, showing the beginnings of the theatrical depravity and bloody myth-making George Miller’s saga extends into the future. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, it’s clear and angry about Australian history – with Hunnam and Hoult playing the depraved Brit coppers this time, though Hoult’s louchely perverse Constable Fitzpatrick spends more time drooling over Ned than gunning for him. Jed Kurzel again contributes an effective, unusual score – augmented by traditional ditties which seem to be new-made for the occasion, and include a rousing anti-police song (‘He’s a Constable Cunt’) from Crowe that’s quite likely to catch on.