Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN -

DI­REC­TOR Justin Kurzel

CAST Ge­orge Mackay, Or­lando Sch­w­erdt, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis, Thomasin Mcken­zie, Russell Crowe, Sean Keenan

Raised in the harsh en­vi­rons of the outback, Ned Kelly (Sch­w­erdt) is in­duced into a life of crime by bushranger Harry Power (Crowe), be­fore grow­ing into his own man (Mackay) and con­tin­u­ing a life of crime to care for his un­ruly fam­ily, be­com­ing Aus­tralia’s most feared — and beloved — out­law.

JESUS AND THE devil count among cin­ema’s most filmed char­ac­ters, but Ned Kelly was its first proper, big screen (anti)hero. Fit­tingly, he sits some­where be­tween both fig­ures, liv­ing in Aus­tralia’s mem­ory as ei­ther a folk mes­siah or bru­tal mur­derer. The Story Of The Kelly Gang is con­sid­ered the first ever fea­ture-length mo­tion pic­ture. Made in Mel­bourne in 1906 (only 26 years af­ter Kelly’s death), about 20 min­utes of its hour-long run­ning time sur­vive to­day, the film flick­er­ing and tor­tured, its vi­o­lent cli­max suit­ably warped and ob­scured, as Kelly him­self has been.

This latest ver­sion — based on Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-win­ning novel — im­me­di­ately wrong­foots the au­di­ence with a cap­tion an­nounc­ing: “Noth­ing you are about to see is true.” Yet in its harsh de­pic­tion of outback life, vi­o­lence and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, ev­ery­thing about this an­ar­chic and un­com­fort­able pic­ture feels true. There’s a slightly ragged and un­even quality to the story, bro­ken into chunks of life (and death) rather than a neat three acts, which lends an un­pre­dictabil­ity to it, even if you’re fa­mil­iar with Kelly’s jour­ney from poverty-stricken sprog to revered and re­viled out­law. “My dear child, I know what it is to be raised on lies and si­lences,” writes Kelly to his off­spring in the open­ing, a char­ac­ter aware of how his­tory will dis­tort him, al­though one of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of his de­pic­tion here is how lit­tle he knows him­self — not con­vinced of his own righ­teous­ness, plans or sex­u­al­ity. And others know it. “You’re not the man you pre­tend to be,” says the charis­matic con­sta­ble who be­friends and then bat­tles him (Nicholas Hoult, in a las­civ­i­ous and swag­ger­ing per­for­mance of Rick­man-in-prince-of-thieves-es­que vil­lainy). Ned’s fel­low bushranger and best friend (maybe lover) Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) boils it down thus: “You’re just a man on his way to be hung. We all are.”

Young Ned — a mes­meris­ing Or­lando Sch­w­erdt — is raised by a re­lent­lessly strong mother (Essie Davis, with mo­ments of ter­ri­fy­ing fury) and sur­rounded by var­i­ous male dis­ap­point­ments, from his weak fa­ther to the bul­ly­ing po­lice and, even­tu­ally, rogu­ish out­law Harry Power, por­trayed with a mix of de­cep­tive ge­nial­ity and self-hat­ing machismo by Russell Crowe. When Ned is full grown, all sinewy grace and con­fused anger, Ge­orge Mackay — with his torso like a wall of skinned rab­bits — plays him as

a re­luc­tant leader, a man who can’t es­cape fate. He will fight be­cause he feels he must, but he knows the blood he sheds will even­tu­ally drown him.

Af­ter the some­what soul­less spec­ta­cle of As­sas­sin’s Creed — a video-game adap­ta­tion where the im­pres­sive fights on screen felt like they also hap­pened over the script — di­rec­tor Justin Kurzel re­turns to his home­land and re­unites with Shaun Grant, screen­writer of his de­but fea­ture, Snow­town. And while there’s noth­ing quite as vi­cious here as in that un­spar­ing serial killer story, they share — along with Kurzel’s ver­sion of Mac­beth — a clear-eyed aware­ness of the con­se­quences of vi­o­lence, as well as the tan­gled re­la­tion­ships of men un­able to un­der­stand their feel­ings, whether they be of fear, lust or love. Jed Kurzel pro­vides a spare sound­track of strings and ban­shee wails, over­lay­ing some quite un­for­get­table cine­matog­ra­phy from Ari Weg­ner, who fol­lows her work on Lady Mac­beth with more images of ter­ri­ble beauty: Ned’s home glow­ing in the vast dark­ness, like an outback na­tiv­ity; Ned sit­ting stark in the day­light amid skele­tal trees; Mackay’s eyes, through the slit of Ned’s fa­mous metal hel­met, de­flect­ing bul­lets but not fear.

This is a film that gets un­der your nails — red in tooth and claw. Images linger for weeks in the mem­ory and, for how­ever much the film deals with myth and his­tory, it feels in­cred­i­bly im­me­di­ate. The punk­ish stylings of Kelly’s gang — which could have felt archly anachro­nis­tic — are just right, pro­vid­ing a sense of a cul­ture on the edge, a fron­tier be­tween the wild colony of Aus­tralia and the coun­try it was be­com­ing. In that sense True His­tory shares an un­likely con­nec­tion with one of the great­est Amer­i­can Westerns about change and so-called civil­i­sa­tion, Butch Cas­sidy And The Sun­dance Kid. Though there’s no freeze-frame ro­man­ti­cism here, just the im­mutable truth of what hap­pened af­ter Kelly’s gang were tracked down. The af­ter­math of out­lawry. A bru­tal, cold re­al­ity. Such is life. NEV PIERCE

Here: The Kelly Gang were a cheery bunch. Above: Russell Crowe beards up as the rogueish Harry Power. Be­low: Nicholas as charis­matic cop­per Fitz­patrick.

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