AN OUTLAW UNTO HIMSELF
TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG
Directed by Justin Kurzel. Written by Shaun Grant. Starring George Mackay, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Russell Crowe. 124 mins.Four/Five In cinemas March 6.
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 punkflavoured 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.
Written and directed by Stella Meghie. Starring Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Lil Rel Howery, Courtney B. Vance. 106 mins. In cinemas March 6.
EXPLORATION OF LOVE ACROSS GENERATIONS REMAINS SADLY UNDERDEVELOPED
Name a mainstream non-comedy romance film about two black characters, that isn’t largely defined by hardship and tragedy. Compared to the amount of romance films featuring white characters, and the amount of films featuring black characters enduring oppression, violence and tragedy, the number of films just letting black characters be in love is depressingly low.
Enter The Photograph, directed by Stella Meghie (Insecure, Grownish). Insecure’s Issa Rae plays
Mae, a Queens gallery curator who has just lost her mother Christina, a talented photographer who once said during an interview, “I wish I was as good at love as I am working. I wish I didn’t leave people behind so often.”
It’s a sentiment understood by Michael (Lakeith Stanfield, Sorry To Bother You), a journalist working on a story about Christina in the midst of a break-up and a possible move to London. When he meets Mae, however, these two ambitious, emotionally guarded characters fall for each other quickly, and struggle with how much of themselves
they want to give. Flashbacks to 1980s
Louisiana show young lovers Christina (Chanté Adams) and doting fisherman Isaac (Y’lan Noel) navigating the same struggle, as Christina feels stifled by small-town life.
It’s fine to have low stakes in a multigenerational exploration of love, but Meghie’s screenplay sadly doesn’t flesh out the barebones plot with compelling character detail. Michael and Rae’s conversations are dull and unenlightening, and their characters are always defined in relation to other people; Christina and Mae are compared to their mothers; Michael to his settled-down brother. There’s also a lack of chemistry between Stanfield and Rae, and a badly edited PG-13 sex scene doesn’t help. Likewise, the soundtrack of atmospheric jazz strives to inject tension, turmoil and passion, though only emphasises how little of that we see onscreen.
Rob Morgan (Just Mercy) as an older Isaac gets the knock-out line of the film, saying of Christina, “I didn’t know how to be with a woman I had to keep up with.” It’s a level of insight and emotion the film should have brought to all of its characters. But The Photograph remains (sorry) underdeveloped.
THE PIECES I AM
Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Featuring
Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks. 119 mins. Four/ Five In cinemas March 6.
EXCELLENT DOCUMENTARY ABOUT ICONIC AUTHOR TONI MORRISON
Known for his work on HBO anthology series The Latino List, The Out List and The Trans List, documentarian Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has a talent for weaving very human stories and narrative strands into a greater, illuminating tapestry. The same could be said for Toni Morrison, a writer whose artistic, cultural and historical legacy could only be elevated by her own insights – which she bestows upon us here.
Morrison, who passed away last year aged
88, was a charismatic, vibrant, compelling storyteller, and her opening yarn in GreenfieldSanders’ film illustrates this perfectly. The author recalls seeing her grandfather reading and re-reading the Bible, an act she found odd – until she realised that in his time, it was illegal for black people to read. An apparent act of devotion was in fact an act of subversion.
Morrison also recalled a young black girl from her youth who prayed for blue eyes; a sign of the racism that infects black children so young. Morrison’s appreciation for words, her awareness of racism, her desire to see and honour black struggle and black resilience would result in her first book, The Bluest Eye.
Morrison peppers her interviews with these beautifully told anecdotes, as well as insights into the endless barriers she faced, including racial segregation at college, a failed marriage, single motherhood, and the overwhelming white maleness of the literary scene that denied her entry. Friends and peers are also on hand to provide insight into not just Morrison’s character – “she loves parties and gifts, never come to her party without a gift,” reveals one friend, laughing – but also her cultural impact. Interviewees include Oprah, whose promotion of Morrison’s novels via her Book Club helped bring the author to a global audience.
Archival photographs, examples of black art, and a playful soundtrack add context, illustration and atmosphere to the to-camera remembrances. Elsewhere, old footage of Morrison’s necessarily scathing responses to ignorant and racist questions show the attitudes she faced; the white gaze that others so many people; and her unwavering brilliance.
Overall, The Pieces I Am is a celebratory, empowering and vivacious documentary, allowing audiences to bask in the company of the woman behind the legacy.
CALM WITH HORSES
Directed by Nick Rowland. Written by Joe Murtagh. Starring Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot. 101 mins.Three and a half/Five In cinemas March 13.
FORMER BOXER IS TORN BETWEEN FAMILY AND CRIME IN IRISH DRAMA
Masculinity, loyalty and family lie at the heart of Nick Rowland’s crime drama, adapted by
Joe Murtagh from a Colin Barrett story. Cosmo Jarvis, unrecognisable from his role as the cocky love interest in Lady Macbeth, plays Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong, a former boxer who has received too many harsh blows in his lifetime. All muscle and shaved head, but with the downcast air of a wounded animal, Douglas is at once tormented and tormenting. He has become the enforcer for the vicious Devers clan, who deal in drugs, violence and intimidation, and are led by the sociopathic Paudi (Ned Dennehy).
Paudi’s nephew Dymphna (Barry Keoghan) is desperate to prove himself, and has an unbreakable hold over Arm, ordering him to beat people to a pulp and pushing him to get high. Dymphna constantly tells Arm that they’re family – but Arm actually has a real family that his relationship with the Devers is endangering. His five-year-old son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) is on the autism spectrum, and Douglas’ ex Ursula (Niamh Algar) is determined to get him into a special school. Douglas is torn between wanting to be a better father and wanting to keep his distance so Jack and Ursula are safe – but good decisions have never been his strong suit.
The male-centred tale of drugs and crime is not a new narrative for the Irish screen, and Calm With Horses can feel familiar and conventional. But Rowland’s strengths lie in character study and tension, and he creates an effectively bleak atmosphere that hovers over the small rural town, while an electronic score adds to the oppressive ambience. Keoghan is mercurial and menacing, and though Algar’s role is underdeveloped, she exudes intelligence and empathy. Jarvis is a compelling presence onscreen, bringing a clumsy warmth and innocence to his role, so that even as he beats men to a pulp, you’re rooting for him to escape his no-exit existence.
As moments of brutal, bloody violence contrast with scenes of Douglas trying to connect with his young son, there’s a sense that both feel trapped, misunderstood, and desperate for a safe haven.