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).