Greetings again from the darkness. The opening title card states “Nothing you are about to see is true” … and then it dissolves, leaving the word ‘true’ as the first word in the film’s title. Of course, some of the things we are about to see are true, though it is a dramatized version with a screenplay adapted by Shaun Grant (BERLIN SYNDROME, 2017) from Peter Carey’s 2000 novel. Director Justin Kurzel (MACBETH, 2015) takes a very artsy and stylistic approach in telling the story of the notorious Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, while still including the expected violence and brutality.
Opening in 1867 Australia, we first see young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwert) spying on his mother (Essie Davis, THE BABADOOK, 2014) as she provides service to Sgt. O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam). It’s the kind of service a young boy should never see his mother perform, especially as the father/husband (Ben Corbett) hovers outside the cabin with Ned’s siblings. Life is difficult for the Kelly family. Dad has some issues, so mom does what she has to in order to keep food on the table. Ned’s life and family dynamics change quickly when his dad takes the fall for a crime Ned committed.
Harry Power (played by hefty Russell Crowe) arrives on the scene, and becomes Ned’s mentor in song (a sing-a-long title that can’t be repeated here) and as a bushranger. It’s not long after this when the movie shifts from Ned as a boy, to Ned as a man (played by George Mackay, 1917), who spends a few years away from home. Ned crosses paths with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult) numerous times, one which results in Ned meeting, and falling for, a young prostitute named Mary Hearn (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT). Ned and Mary return home to visit his mother, and they find she’s now engaged to a younger man, George King (Marlon Williams). George has been teaching his “trade” of horse-thieving to Ned’s brothers, including Dan (played by musician Nick Cave’s son, Earl Cave). It’s at this point we learn about how the Kelly Gang was formed, and why they took to wearing dresses … “Nothing scares a man like crazy.”
There is a lot going on in this story for the tale of a man who was executed at age 25. We see Ned evolve from a curious youngster to a bare-knuckle boxer to an outlaw who became an anti-hero cult icon. Witnessing the father figures he endured leaves little wonder why he turned out the way he did – an angry, cross-dressing outlaw leading the Irish rebellion in hopes of taking down the Crown. Ned is told that “a man can never outrun his fate”, and we know Ned’s fate upfront. We are there as Ned gives a motivational speech to the Kelly gang, and we watch in awe as they self-test their own body armor.
“My Dear Son …” are the first words we hear as Ned writes a letter promising to tell no lies about his history. The letter acts as somewhat of a framing device for the film, and covers the entirety of the Kelly Outbreak, as it’s now referred. There have been numerous projects (movies, mini-series, docu-dramas) over the years, including Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as those who have portrayed Ned Kelly on screen. Director Kurzel and cinematographer Ari Wegner offer up quite a stylish look for this vast wasteland, and even utilizes some Terrence Malick-type editing for effect. Even the closing credit sequence is a work of art. It’s a family affair for director Justin Kurzel, as his brother Jed Kurzel delivers the music, and Justin’s wife Essie Davis plays Ned’s mother. It’s certainly not a typical western, and Ned is difficult to relate to as a character, but the look and style of the film keep us engaged. Perhaps the oddest decision was to have MacKay clean-shaven, as most of us have seen the photos of Ned Kelly and his beard … a beard that seemed to inspire modern day hipsters. Filming took place at Old Melbourne Gaol, which was the actual spot where Ned Kelly was hanged. His last words were: “Such is life.”