The films have usually been bound to their own times rather than his. Mick Jagger made him a prancing dandy in Tony Richardson’s faintly ridiculous 1970 version. Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film had Heath Ledger in bad wigs and worse accent. Ned was born in Australia, but Ledger sounded like he had just walked out of a pub on Grafton Street, Dublin.
Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) did not have to do much to top those but he gives us the most fanciful version yet: Ned Kelly as bisexual bovver boy, in love with his mother, plagued by his masculinity, an angry suburban mullet-head in search of death and glory, but wearing a dress. Oh brother.
Peter Carey can take some of the blame. His celebrated novel took enormous liberties with the story in search of literary invention. Carey was interested in the language, the sentences, although he enjoyed the seasoning offered by some sensational and unproven bits of the story.
A meditation on masculinity, symbolised by a haunting aerial shot of someone in a white dress galloping a horse through a forest at night.
There’s almost no evidence for cross-dressing in the historical record, but Carey took what little there was and gave the Kelly boys a wardrobe of fine ladies wear. Kurzel runs with this as a main theme, offering a meditation on masculinity, symbolised by a haunting aerial shot of someone in a white dress galloping a horse through a forest at night. What does it mean? Search me. The film is full of poetic shots meant to take us into a dream state, verging on nightmare. Kurzel is ambitious, at least, even if most of his flourishes are distracting rather than transporting.
As a boy of 11, Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) is ashamed to discover his father kept a red dress hidden in a box. The boy burns it and returns to the Kelly home – a shack in a desolate plain of dead trees, echoing Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series – where his mother Ellen wears the pants, literally. Ellen (Essie Davis, wife of Justin Kurzel) will do anything for her family, says one of her kids. Ned watches through a slit in the tin walls as she gives oral relief to a constable so he won’t shut down her meagre shibeen.
English actor George MacKay, pale and intense, arrives as the grown-up Ned, a firework in search of a match. He has no male role models, only men he hates or fears – such as Harry Power (Russell Crowe), another of his mother’s lovers, who takes him on as apprentice. Ned does not realise what kind of apprentice till Harry bails up a coach and kills two men in cold blood. Crowe brings some comic energy to the role. Harry seems to enjoy life, and there are precious few characters here you would want to meet, let alone get to know.
Nicholas Hoult gives us a sneering upper-class Englishman as Constable Fitzpatrick, the man whose naked lust for Ned’s sister Kate (Josephine Blazier) causes all the trouble. Hoult treats Ned like a sexual brother in arms, goading him to taste excess at an incongruously well-appointed country brothel. Ned finds the love of his life (Thomasin McKenzie) here, after some energetic coupling.
It may have been possible to adapt Carey’s florid book for the screen, but Kurzel fails to bring the basics. He goes straight for the flourishes, neglecting character, plot and dramatic build-up. The film is all surface. MacKay does much of the film with shirt off and muscles twitching, a fire in his eyes; that might mean more if Kurzel had taken the time to build his characters. What Kurzel gives us is attitude, bluster, blarney, and a kind of empty visual poetics – not unlike what he did with his Macbeth. It’s not so much storytelling as empty image-making. That’s trendy, but it makes this Ned a dull hero.