Stick your head inside a homemade iron helmet and what do you see? Thanks to the crude eye slit, probably not much. But the whole world suddenly looks like it has been framed in widescreen. Perhaps that’s why the story of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly – the Aussie outlaw, agitator and problematic folk hero – has been retold, rehashed and reimagined so many times on film. By the time Mick Jagger pulled on the metal togs in 1970, it was already the seventh Ned Kelly movie to be produced (albeit the first in colour). For good or ill, the notorious 19th-century bushranger remains a foundational figure in the modern Australian psyche.
The latest biopic, True History of the Kelly Gang, is adapted from Peter Carey’s Booker-winning 2000 novel, which takes the form of a piecemeal autobiography scrawled down by Ned himself. Adapted for the screen by Australian writer/director Justin Kurzel – a stripped-down return to home territory after his compromised video game blockbuster Assassin’s Creed – it makes for an impressionistic life story told in bold brush strokes.
The film begins with Ned’s formative years in a rickety shebeen in the wilds of Victoria, where his dirt-poor Irish family are persecuted by a sadistic English constable (Charlie Hunnam, getting a rare big-screen runout for his natural Newcastle accent). While contemptuous of his convict father, the angel-faced, mullet-haired young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) would clearly do anything to protect his mother Ellen (a vengeful, near-feral Essie Davis). After his dad’s death, he falls under the spell of Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a bear-like bushranger who introduces his apprentice to the wonders of cowboy boots and flaming pancake stacks, as well as teaching him some other rather more mortal lessons.
After a tough prison spell, Ned re-emerges in the lithe form of George MacKay, first glimpsed contorting himself into unnatural shapes in preparation for some bare-knuckle mayhem. In the recent harrowing trench drama 1917, MacKay brought a relatable whiff of Nicholas Lyndhurst plonkerdom to his beleaguered squaddie; here, he has transformed himself into a sinewy, rippling force of nature.
Ned returns home to reunite with the Kelly clan, who are still barely scraping by despite his mother falling in with a dandyish American horse thief, and comes into the seductive orbits of louche new constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, spiffed out but rotten to the core) and local gym-slip mum Mary (Thomasin McKenzie).
Though Ned is attempting to go straight – preferring to scribble his chaotic thoughts in a little red notebook, an affectation borrowed from old Harry – the looming threat of the law coming down hard on his younger brother eventually spurs him into open rebellion. The Kelly boys gather an army of irregulars and outfit them in flouncy dresses: nominally to disquiet their repressed enemy, but here almost presented as an early expression of glam rock androgyny.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Even if you haven’t seen any of the previous screen versions of the story, you can probably intuit where all this is headed. In the last third of the movie, Kurzel literally cranks things up, finding a phantasmagorical register for the showdown between the pursuing coppers and Ned in his Scrapheap Challenge armour by using strobe lighting to create a zoetrope-like sense of flickering unreality.
If the 2003 Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger was artful but tame, this version veers so far in the opposite direction that it often feels like an assault. In his scratched confessions, Ned frets that his outlandish life will sound “like some strange tale from an ancient world”. Kurzel seems to have taken that as his mission statement, and the result is the most bracing and elemental spin on the Kelly legend yet.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas from February 28