‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ director, stars on their hypnotic outlaw saga

April 23, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

Australia’s answer to Robin Hood (or Jesse James, depending on whom you ask), bushranger Ned Kelly still looms large in the country’s folkloric memory, 140 years after his final, armor-clad shootout with police in the small town of Glenrowan, Victoria, and subsequent hanging in Melbourne. There he is, adorning coasters and key rings, emblazoned in tattoo form across the backs of countless Aussie men; amusement parks and neighborhood pubs are named after Kelly, as is a popular meat pie.    

“In a way, Ned Kelly’s just a part of our childhood,” explains director Justin Kurzel, whose bleak and bracing portrait of the outlaw, True History of the Kelly Gang, is out Friday (at select drive-in theaters, as well as across VOD platforms). Kurzel grew up outside Adelaide, hearing tales of Kelly’s vicious life and complicated legacy, and remarks that “he’s become a bit of a carnival as well.”

So when Kurzel read Peter Carey’s 2000 Booker Prize–winning novel, from which his film takes its title and more, he was riveted by its framing as an autobiography, written by Ned to his daughter on the eve of his hanging. Carey’s book—though itself a work of fiction, with fragments of fact—addresses Kelly’s (imagined, yet plausible) fears that his story might be lost to time, or seized and distorted by those who never knew him.

“You really feel a sense of truth, and a person there,” says Kurzel, “because of how Peter Carey writes that first-person view of someone speaking to his unborn daughter about his own history, knowing it’s about to be stolen. I found that fascinating, how we use these historical figures for our own ways of identifying who we are [culturally]. In that, for some reason, this felt like the most honest book I’d read about him.”

True History of the Kelly Gang
George MacKay plays Ned Kelly in “True History of the Kelly Gang,” which hits select drive-ins and VOD on April 24.
Courtesy of IFC Films

Kurzel’s film adaptation is fevered and bellicose, an expressionistic take on Carey’s novel that follows Kelly from the age of 12 through his violent death a short 13 years later. In adolescence, eerily unflappable newcomer Orlando Schwerdt plays Kelly. In adulthood, and for the majority of the film, he’s portrayed by British actor George MacKay, best known for 1917, with a wild-eyed stare (and, purists will note, without that iconic Kelly beard). 

Like its source material, this outlaw epic makes no serious claims to historical accuracy, mostly because it’s after something richer and less literal: the story of a man who would become a myth, allusive and highly reflexive, steeped in bilious atmosphere and littered with references to evading or embracing one’s fate. In this pursuit, True History goes so far as to anachronistically scrawl an approximation of a William Faulkner quote—“The past is not dead, it’s not even past”—across the location of the gang’s last stand in Glenrowan.

“We wanted to chase the feeling that he could have been anyone,” says Kurzel, who worked from a script by Shaun Grant. “What happened at Glenrowan, and what happened in terms of his hanging, was always going to happen. There was no way he was going to be able to change that destiny. It was marked in stone. And that became a really interesting discussion. Can you ever outrun your destiny? Can you ever outrun your fate? Are you always marked to be a certain thing, no matter what you do?”

Across his career, Kurzel’s become associated with a kind of fire-and-brimstone poetry, and his films share a grim fascination with understanding what makes men brutal. The Snowtown Murders, his pitiless debut, depicted the murders committed by notorious serial killer John Bunting with a nightmarish inexorability, heightened by an overcast color palette that could be described as gunmetal. His punishingly dark Macbeth adaptation seemed to descend into the pits of hell alongside its ill-fated tyrants, its third act a miasma of black blood and squelching mud. Even video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, Kurzel’s less-acclaimed foray into blockbuster territory, furthered his penchant for all things bleak and baroque, cloaking its violence in dust and shadow.

But True History of the Kelly Gang is undoubtedly Kurzel’s most ambitious undertaking yet, from a visual standpoint as well as a narrative one. Haunting aerial shots present the film’s setting as a barren, almost alien landscape. Kurzel shot in areas of Australia that will be less familiar to nonnatives, fanning out into the wildlands in search of particularly sparse and striking vistas, ones that could externalize the desolation and dread dogging Ned at every turn.

True History of the Kelly Gang
From left: Russell Crowe as Harry Power; Essie Davis as Ellen Kelly; Schwerdt as young Ned Kelly; and Kurzel on the set of “True History of the Kelly Gang.”
Courtesy of IFC Films

“I’m always inspired by landscape first, with film,” he says. “I do a lot of prep to determine what that landscape is going to bring to the film in terms of character. You almost decide to do the film when you find them, because you know you’ve got them and that they’re going to give you so much.”

In the Central Highlands of Victoria, up snow slopes, Kurzel and his crew found a winter wetland strewn with trees that had been fire-ravaged in the summer months. “The environment there created these landscapes with scorched, fingerlike trees that just went on for miles and miles,” he recalls. “There was something so evocative about it that also played into the psychology of Ned and these nightmares he has.”

It was in this desiccated land that Kurzel placed the Kelly homestead, a blackened tin shed that stands out against the austere backdrop of cracked earth and dead trees. There, Ned is raised by his domineering mother, Ellen (The Babadook’s Essie Davis, who’s married to Kurzel in real life), once his Irish-convict father, Red (Ben Corbett), exits the picture.

Of particular importance in True History’s exploration of the Kelly mythology is the bushranger’s volatile bond with Ellen. Ned’s attracted to his mother, perhaps overly so, but equally repulsed when he witnesses her turning tricks to ensure their family protection from the local constable (Charlie Hunnam), who long tormented Red. As Ned grows into a man, Ellen’s often the one whispering in his ear, instilling in him her fiercely held hatred of coppers and going so far as to sell him into the employ of Harry Power (Russell Crowe), Australia’s most legendary bushranger—before Ned, that is. 

“She has to stand up when her husband has fallen down, and she has to use Ned to protect her and her family as well,” explains Davis by phone, describing Ellen as “mercurial” and a born survivor, albeit one who’d rather risk her son’s life than risk losing sway over him. “Whether they’re thieves or not is irrelevant. She wants her children to grow up as good, loyal people, as opposed to what she sees the lawmakers, constables, and sergeants as, which is that they’re all bad, depraved predators.”

True History of the Kelly Gang
Davis as Ellen Kelly with Schwerdt as young Ned Kelly. Davis describes the love between the two characters as “deep and sensual and proud.”
Courtesy of IFC Films

But Ellen’s relationship with Ned crackles with another, less savory kind of tension, a dynamic that Kurzel, Davis, and MacKay were all keen to explore—especially given that the real Ellen Kelly did at one point marry and have three more children with a man the same age as her eldest son. 

“She is a sensual and sexual being, and deeply feminine,” adds Davis. [The love] between her and her son is not necessarily Oedipal—though it might be from his point of view—but it’s deep and sensual and proud. It’s also love that’s like being entranced by a snake charmer: ‘Don’t even think about leaving me, because if you do, you will have become one of them, and I’ll take you down.’”

For MacKay, who also spoke with Fortune by phone, Ned’s relationship with Ellen became the core of the character, beneath the exploits and armor. “He loves that woman more than anything,” says the actor, 28. “And because of the failings of his father, he has become his mother’s man, as a young boy. In becoming a man for his mother, he’s then in turn stunted in his growth when he does eventually become a man.”

In Kurzel’s staging of events, Ned’s fateful attack on Glenrowan—a dizzyingly impressionistic climax to the film that strobes the screen in hot white flashes as bullets perforate the gang’s hideout—is seen as a response to his mother’s imprisonment by police. “The curse of Ned’s past is this commitment to his mother, which eventually is what runs him into the ground,” explains MacKay.

As he makes his last stand, Ned dons a suit of makeshift armor, fashioned from stolen plow moldboards, and charges out into a hail of bullets. It’s the first image that comes to mind for many Australians when they picture Kelly, who’s sometimes nicknamed “old buckethead.”

But throughout True History, Kurzel latches onto a very different kind of armor the outlaw and his gang wear during their most infamous exploits: namely, women’s clothing. In one early scene, Kelly gallops on horseback through the Australian wasteland, the camera pushing in until it’s clear that he’s clad in a scarlet chiffon gown; later, as the gang ambushes police officers during what would become known as the Stringybark Creek massacre, their dresses flow out behind them, consciously subverting the audience’s traditional notions of bushrangers as ruggedly, impenetrably male. This is a prominent invention of Carey’s book, though it’s not without grounding in historical fact; Steve Hart, a member of the Kelly gang, was notorious for wearing dresses in order to disguise his identity.

“As soon as we read that the gangs had worn these dresses, and that the dresses were also worn as a form of intimidation, it was really interesting,” says Kurzel. “For the actors, when they started putting on the dresses, it was incredible how liberated they became. It seemed to free them up. They weren’t constrained by who they were.”

When MacKay was first approached by Kurzel about the project, back in the summer of 2017, the actor was fascinated by the idea of complicating Ned Kelly’s myth in this way, specifically unpacking his status as a paragon of masculinity. 

“Ned’s a symbol—who is therefore in some ways known by everyone but not known by anyone—and almost just his own silhouette and his own name,” explains MacKay. “Rather than trying to fill the boots of this massive, respected silhouette, the idea was almost to have a slightly ironic take on it, flip it on its head a little bit.”

MacKay spent two-and-a-half months down under, working with horses and studying Australian culture in preparation to play the bushranger. There are more biographies about Ned Kelly than any other Australian historical figure, and his story’s been told on screen nearly dozen times before—including in the world’s first feature film, 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang. Mick Jagger has played him, as has the late Heath Ledger. For MacKay, it became important to build his own version of the character absent the cocksure swagger past performers have brought to the role.

True History of the Kelly Gang
Hunnam as Sergeant O’Neil in “True History of the Kelly Gang.”
Courtesy of IFC Films

“This is the most immersed I’ve ever been in a project and in building a character,” he says.

Financing fell out a little more than a week before production was set to begin, and Kurzel was forced to reimagine his story on half of its original budget. In the interim, MacKay took on another film, all the while continuing to toy with Ned in the back of his mind. Once the project came back together a few months later, the cast and crew had four weeks to rehearse before cameras rolled in Victoria. During that time, Kurzel put his actors—especially MacKay, Sean Keenan as Joe Byrne, Louis Hewison as Steve Hart, and Nick Cave’s son Earl as Ned’s younger brother Dan—through their paces in unexpected ways. 

Outlining that he viewed the Kelly gang as a group of young punks, joined together against the establishment of their day, Kurzel told his leads on day one of rehearsal that he had booked them a gig a few weeks down the line, at the Gasometer Hotel in nearby Collingwood. As prep, they were to form a band, come up with a name, and write songs to play live. When the time came for their group (cheekily named Fleshlight) to perform before a crowd of almost 300, they did so raucously, wearing women’s dresses, ash streaked across their faces like war paint.    

“He wanted to make this film in the spirit of what these men would have felt,” says MacKay, who says the director’s gambit paid off. When he and the other actors came to set a few days later, they felt fired up and thoroughly comfortable with one another. 

That kind of intimacy was essential to re-creating the time period, notes Kurzel. “There weren’t many women, and men were spending a lot of time with each other,” he says. “When you look back, there was much more affection between men, much more comfort in being around men and hugging and naturally being close, no matter your sexual orientation.” 

Kurzel acknowledges that those who lionize Kelly as a model of machismo will likely take issue with these playful, homoerotically charged elements of his film. But to the director, a massive draw of True History is that it interrogates a kind of masculinity particular to Australian men, whom he describes as overridingly “alpha” and inflexible. 

“That kind of Australian masculinity can be quite toxic, so there was a little rebellion in the dresses,” he says. “Our film is a provocation. In Australia, Ned Kelly represents the classic, white, male, larrikin, masculine alpha. And he’s hailed in a certain way, through tattoos and beer. To learn they wore dresses, I thought, ‘Well, that’s bloody interesting.’”

Kurzel points out that, as sensational as certain elements of Ned Kelly’s life were, his cross-dressing should be especially far from a dealbreaker for those Down Under. Australian men still dress up in women’s clothes on occasion, especially at the end of football season. 

“We have these things called Mad Mondays, where all the footballers let their hair down, drink, and dress up,” says Kurzel. “A good half of those footballers dress up as women. That’s always been very curious to me, that a place known for having the strongest kind of masculine, alpha culture would express itself on days off by dressing up as a woman. It’s almost a comfortable protest of their own masculinity.”

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