Filmmakers have struggled to corral the twisting mythologies of Irish-Australian convict-turned bushranger Ned Kelly into a truly brilliant movie since sepia-hued treasure The Story of the Kelly Gang kick-started cinema in 1906.
Heath Ledger probably came closest to capturing a mercurial spirit in Gregor Jordan’s decent Ned Kelly (2003). It’s safe to say that a frilly-chested Mick Jagger, in the dud 1970 movie of the same name by Tony Richardson, did not.
At last we have a true champion in English-Australian lead man George MacKay, also starring in this week’s Golden Globe-winner 1917. He shares the role with brilliant young Aussie actor Orlando Schwerdt.
Snowtown and Macbeth director Justin Kurzel’s blackly comic and deeply tragic masterpiece True History of the Kelly Gang is adapted from the Booker Prize-winning Peter Carey novel, published in 2000.
When I met Kurzel during the Toronto International Film Festival in September last year, he discussed how our understanding of who Ned was, and what celebrating that means for our national identity, is at the core of Carey’s book.
“Peter wrote the True History of the Kelly Gang around the idea that Ned has had his whole history stolen from him,” Kurzel said.
“There have been so many books and films written about him. And he shouldn’t be used as a lovable character we connect to. That’s at the heart of what’s so confusing about our history, in Australia.”
All these different takes play into the three-act film’s deliberately wild tonal shifts. “It’s very athletic,” Kurzel agreed. “Anytime something is set, it pivots. There’s definitely a conscious provocation of style and energy.”
Schwerdt’s cheeky young Ned is moulded by various unsavoury characters into the dangerous rebel with a razor-sharp mind that he’ll become.
“I wanted to cast someone that you could believe in,” Kurzel said.
“That an audience would look at, and go, ‘Well, there’s a really good person, there,’ and there was something inherently like that in George too.”
The Babadook and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries star Essie Davis plays Ellen, Ned’s fierce fighter of a mother.
She and Kurzel have been married since 2002, and recently moved back to Australia, to Davis’ home state of Tasmania with twin daughters Stella and Ruby.
Although Ellen enjoys a tight bond with her young son, you wouldn’t exactly call her a helicopter parent. At one stage she palms off Schwerdt’s young Ned to jolly but wholly unsuitable bushranger Harry Power (Golden Globe winner Russell Crowe) for coin.
“There was always a love story for us, between Ned and Ellen, but she’s very complicated,” Kurzel nodded with a grin.
“I think that that’s something Ned unbelievably admires in her, but she’s desperately scared of Ned outgrowing her.
“She sees greatness in him, and she’s proud of it, but she’s also like, ‘What happens if my son becomes better than me? Becomes a writer, a businessman, prime minister?’
“So in a weird way, she’s also trying to keep him from it.”
Crowe, in a scene-stealing turn, was a dream to work with, Kurzel said.
“He was so humble and generous, leaning on the vulnerability of this iconic character Harry Power and allowing him to slowly start to dismantle.
“Harry almost needs little Ned more than little Ned needs Harry, and in the end, he’s more unhinged than anyone else in the film.”
Once MacKay takes over as Ned, embracing the bushranger identity, he has the Kelly gang don dresses as they run riot around the law. The coppers are led by Mad Max: Fury Road and X-Men star Nichols Hoult’s Constable Fitzpatrick.
“Our masculinity has always been very kind of alpha, of a particularly sporty type,” Kurzel said of this sartorial subversion.
There’s also a strange spark of crackling energy shared between the dueling men that further electrifies the film.
“There’s something Fitzpatrick admires and finds attractive about Ned,” Kurzel said.
“This idea that Ned represents the Kelly name. A kind of notoriety, and also potential freedom. I love seeing cops and robbers hanging out together.
“They have a lot more in common than they don’t.”
True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas now and drops on Stan on Australia Day.