Justin Kurzel detonates a punk power-chord of defiance and anarchy with this brutally violent and unflinchingly stark tale that unfolds in a scorched, alien-looking landscape. The film is adapted by Shaun Grant from Peter Carey’s Booker prize-winning novel, and it is a further variation on the legend of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century Australian outlaw and bush-ranger at war with the English colonial oppressor. Kurzel’s rock’n’roll Kelly has a bit more in common with the spirit of Mick Jagger’s portrayal in Tony Richardson’s 1970 film treatment than with Heath Ledger’s the 2003 version.
Kurzel’s movie draws on the traditional view of Kelly as the Jesse James or Che Guevara of Australia, but subverts the legend by presenting a vivid context of dysfunction and abuse in Kelly’s upbringing: a tragically toxic masculinity and toxic maternity.
The movie does not concentrate on the conventional outlaw group activities of hiding out, robbing banks, quarrelling, and finally confronting the lawmen. Kurzel’s “true” – or rather semi-true – history is more an episodic account of everything that made up this Kelly as an individual, a backstory that morphs almost imperceptibly into the main story. It includes the homoeroticism and sexual ambiguity in his gang’s cross-dressing: wearing women’s dresses to astonish and scare the enemy, and to intensify the sensual pleasure of crime. (It is a factual touch, based on the reported cross-dressing of Kelly gang member Steve Hart.)
Kelly is played as a child by Orlando Schwerdt and as a young man by George MacKay, his body as fiercely muscular and taut as a Vesalian anatomy illustration. Ned is utterly in thrall to his passionate mother Ellen (terrifically played by Essie Davis) while woundedly resenting the fact that she “sold” him as a child in what amounts a crime-apprenticeship to a notorious real-life brigand Harry Power (a potent cameo for Russell Crowe). It is from Power that Kelly learns the lessons of ruthlessness and writing one’s own history. But Kelly cannot quite bring himself to kill the English sergeant (Charlie Hunnam) who once demanded sexual favours from his mother and becomes friendly with the drawling English constable (played by Nicholas Hoult with an alarming hint of Hugh Grant’s mannerisms) at the local brothel, where Kelly fatefully falls in love with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie).
All these elements of his story lead us forward, as if in a fever dream, to Kelly’s great vocation of crime and paramilitary insurgency against the British, with his famous homemade armour. His final showdown with the soldiers is a stroboscopic, hallucinatory nightmare – like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane in Macbeth – which Kurzel filmed in 2015. (And the scene in which the young Ned appears with a dismembered cow for the family to eat reminded me of a similar one from Kurzel’s 2011 film Snowtown.)
It is a very gruelling spectacle, often brilliant, sometimes slightly redundant and perhaps not able to maintain the storytelling rush of its first act. But it is always weirdly plausible in its pure strangeness and in the oddly poignant moments in which Ned seems to make friends with the oppressor – the last of which is an English teacher who offers to help him with his autobiography. The problem of parsing Ned Kelly’s story is at the centre of this film. To watch it, you have to brace for impact.
Source: The Guardian