- 10 Mar 20
Subversive retelling of the Kelly Gang legend
From the opening aerial shot of Ned Kelly galloping atop a horse through the scorched Australian outback, the crimson chiffon gown he’s wearing billowing in the wind, Justin Kurzel’s punk-flavoured movie uses a grand, epic framework. But it also twists expectation and aesthetic into something more interesting and complex – not by neglecting the facts, but by vividly evoking the emotional truth.
The notorious 19th century criminal – played as a young boy by sensitive Orlando Schwerdt, and later by an intense, wild-eyed George Mackay – is described as “a very serious boy who wore his guilt heavily like a cloak.” But what young Kelly actually experiences is shame, collectively inflicted by his drunken, competitive father (Ben Corbett); family tormenter Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam); and his mother Ellen (a superb Essie Davis). She is an Oedipal, mercurial force of rage, sex and survival, who views her son like she views all men: a means to an end.
Kelly’s shame and desire to prove himself soon blend with the lessons about violence, power and legacy that he learns from quicksilver bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) and English Constable Alex Fitzpatrick – the latter played with suave, serpentine menace by Nicholas Hoult. Kelly morphs into a complex, combustible criminal who recruits other men into an insurgence.
Kurzel divides this adaptation of Peter Carey’s 2000 novel into three acts. The first two explore the emotional development and complexity of Ned, including his embrace of writing and language, and his homoerotic connections with men. This queerness adds a sensuality to the character dynamics, and a strutting glam-rock magnetism to both Ned’s characterisation and the stylised visuals (elevated by Alice Babidge’s striking costumes). But it also remains underdeveloped and baiting, as queer aesthetics are embraced, but explicit homosexuality remains taboo.
Still, the nods to gender-bending echo Kurzel’s genre-bending, as he builds towards a brutal, operatic, fever-dream climax, where strobe lights and glowing ghostly figures turn an outback shootout into an hallucinogenic rave. The taut, dark folk score keeps the tension high during this occasionally redundant, but intriguingly expressionistic retelling. Rewriting history may usually be more even, though it’s rarely this evocative.
Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Shaun Grant. Starring George Mackay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe. 124 mins.
In cinemas March 6.