Having read Carey’s novel some years ago I was not expecting any historical accuracy in this film, and this review is not suggesting that there should have been any. Carey’s “True History” is wildly inaccurate in its representation of practically every aspect of the Kelly story, and I personally found the novel a tedious slog after the first 100 pages or so. Rather, I went to see the movie on the big screen to experience what I hoped to be rollicking good entertainment from a director with a reputation for unconventional work. There is still time to see the limited cinema release before it goes on Stan TV later this month. I am glad I went, but was not nearly as impressed as I had hoped to be.
The film is honest in its first title slide: “Nothing you’re about to see is true”. From that point we are off into to the wilds of fiction. The film opens in 1867 with aerial presumably drone) footage of a man in a red dress galloping a horse through a wasteland. This turns out to be Red Kelly, who is apparently a member of an Irish
rebel group, “Sons of Sieve”, which never existed in Australia. We soon meet little Ned, who thankfully has an Australian accent – probably a first for Kelly films – who sees his mother giving a blow job to Sergeant O’Neill through a hole in the wall of their rather large house, which appears to be largely made of corrugated iron, including its roof. Corrugated iron didn’t exist here in 1867; it began to be imported from England in the 1880’s, https://www.hookysroofing.sydney/the-history-of-metal-roofing-in-australia/
Little Ned is ordered away by his da, one of the few Irish words repeatedly used in the film. It reminded me of the Black Adder episode where the destitute old father tells his daughter that she will have to become a prostitute to keep them afloat. Little Ned rescues young Dick Shelton from a very tranquil patch of river – at least we had no raging flood nonsense – and is rewarded with a gold sash hand-embroidered with a message of thanks for his courage. Mrs Kelly sells Ned to Harry Power for £15, although Ned just thinks he’s been sent to learn survival skills. Harry doesn’t like police, and teaches the little Kelly kids a song that goes, “He’s a cunt, cunt,
cunstable/ A cunt, cunt, cunstable” for a family sing-along. I can’t remember if that is in Carey’s book.
Power lives in a roomy hut with a large unglazed window up in the snow country. Despite this it is comfortably furnished with plenty of books, furniture, travelling trunks, and so on –the life of Riley to be sure. That lifestyle costs money, and Harry is revealed to be a murdering bushranger who shoots victims willy-nilly and tries to get little Ned to finish one off too. A rather long scene has Harry later trying to coax little Ned into shooting the balls off a naked Sergeant O’Neill.
Ned soon transforms into a man and returns home all grown up. If he had rat’s tails he would be quite the skinhead. He meets Fitzpatrick in Mrs Robinson’s brothel, which Sergeant O’Neil also frequents. Fitzpatrick has an English accent (despite in reality being colonial born of Irish stock), and seeing that Ned doesn’t seem to like the look of him, askes, “Is it because I’m British or because I’m a trooper?”. The by now naked Fitzpatrick sits Ned on a couch next to him, leaning towards him. They both smoke pipes as some form of relationship develops; a theme later seen in the relationship
between Ned and Joe Byrne, first seen in a train freight car wrestling over a poetry book, and later tenderly lying together under a blanket, Brokeback Mountain style, interspersed with a brief shot of them naked wrestling. A well-written background story looking at masculinity issues in this film is online here, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/movies/dressed-to-kill-justin-kurzel-s-ned-kelly-film-
Ned shoots Fitzpatrick in the wrist at the Kelly house after Fitzpatrick has revealed that Mary, one of Mrs Robinson’s girls who Ned fell for, and has made pregnant and intends to marry, had her first baby by George King, Mrs’s Kelly’s second husband. This ludicrous scene has about a dozen actors milling around, and Nicholas Hoult as Fitzpatrick does a magnificent acting job in infuriating everyone. He is possibly the best actor in the film, along with Esse Davis as Mrs Kelly, although her put-on Irish accent strays to the unclear in places. Ned and Dan then head for the bush. Mrs Kelly
shoots King’s horse in revenge for his philandering; he punches her to the ground and clears out.
Ned decides to gather his mates, who all wear dresses when out thieving stock and larking about so as to create fear at their craziness, and take on the police at Stringybark Creek. Only the four Kelly gang members front for that fracas, two in dresses. Needless to say, the police fire first in Carey’s scenario, a clanger followed by Kurzel. All four police are present when the gang advance. Sergeant Kennedy is shown as dying after a furious gunfight, with Ned taking the dying man’s notebook.
To this point the film has moved along quite well, if in a kind of totally unhistorical but mostly entertaining way, generally following Carey’s novel as far as I can remember. Weaknesses begin to appear from the gathering of Ned’s army onwards. Some twenty lads in dresses whoop and holler as Ned outlines his train derailment plan and gives what is supposed to be a lengthy rallying speech of defiance, but to me it fell flat. Between flapping their skirts and putting on multiple suits of armour, their whooping cries seemed forced. Ned’s speech was hardly Churchillian; more along the lines of
“We’re gunna go and f– the lot of ‘em”, and not very rousing in my view despite the actors’ efforts.
The Glenrowan Inn is a graffiti-ridden shed in which a dozen or more prisoners are pushed around with sacks on their heads. We are in some kind of post-punk apocalyptic fairyland. The gunfight ensues when a long line of police in hooded macs advance with flares during the night, illuminated by relentless strobe lighting. The effect is that the Inn is being attacked by a line of white cowled monks bearing rifles. This effect must have got the editors excited, as it is repeated ad nauseum.
We then have lengthy scenes of the gang bellowing wildly within the Inn as they load and fire outwards, increasingly covered with blood until it looks like a Heinz sponsorship, and interior shots showing the walls increasingly shot though by bullets illuminated by strobe lighting and smoke effects. It reminded me of a laboured large scale cinema version of the shed at the back of the anamatronic show at the Glenrowan Tourist Centre with its bullet shooting recording and backlit holes in the walls, https://www.australiantraveller.com/vic/is-this-australias-worst-theme-park/
Essentially it is blood-spattered everything with the plot completely lost, at least on me.
At last Ned steps out in armour to singlehandedly take on the police. We are treated to lengthy hand-held shots of his advance through a haze of strobe lights. My memory is largely of the camera focused on close-ups of his eyes looking through his graffiti-covered helmet, or following him along from behind. Ned is eventually captured, and Byrne’s body is displayed tied to a tree. Ned is shown in his gaol cell where his mother (wearing a canvas gaol hood) is brought in to see him, then led to the gallows. For some reason they did not use the Old Melbourne Gaol scaffold. The freshly hung
Ned is shown dangling in the middle of a wing of cells, hanging in space between the second and third tier, in a lit cross sectional area which does not match anything in the OMG. His hanging is shown as bungled. His hooded head is shown gasping for breath as he dies from strangulation under his own bodyweight.
This is a ridiculous film interpretation of Carey’s description of Kelly’s death, which was taken from the 1880 Herald. The last page of the novel more or less directly quoted it, saying that there was “the usual shudder that passes through the frame of hanged men; but then the legs were drawn up for some distance, and then fell suddenly again. This
movement was repeated several times, but finally all motion ceased, and at the end of four minutes it was all over”. There is nothing anywhere about dying of strangulation, and the Herald article and other papers noted that death was both expeditious and instantaneous.
The film ends with some kind of punk music playing while the ‘graffiti-on-wall’ style acting credits roll, then the production credits begin in semi-readable yellow lettering that reminded me of 1960s pop art and advertising.
Overall, I went with high expectations for simple unhistorical entertainment, but found it a serious letdown from about halfway through as the story moved into Ned’s rather dopey looking army and the film’s version of the Glenrowan saga. His frocked-up army deserted him before the showdown.
Despite the newness of the launch – I went on the second night – there were barely 20 people in the Elsternwick cinema on a Friday night. One left before the feature had finished, and about half left at the end before the credits started. No-one applauded at the end. Only about 8 sat through the whole credit roll. That was a massive contrast with the Ben Head’s Stringybark film, where the entire audience of a couple of hundred sat through the entire credits in silence, then applauded for nearly a minute. I’m glad I went to check it out but I won’t bother to watch it again on Stan. It will be interesting to see what other people make of it.
( NOTE : This review was submitted by a Guest reviewer : Ive not yet seen this film and wonder if I will bother, given that people on all sides of the Kelly debate seem to hate it.
Aidan Phelan thinks the Director is using the movie to give the finger to the “entire populous of Australia” saying that Australians are uneducated bogans! That led me to wonder if maybe Kurzel was referring not to the entire populous of Australia but to the people who have totally ignored the historical truths of the Kelly story and rewritten it to make the murderous criminal into a hero . Maybe Kurzel is saying to the Kelly Gang idolators out there , you think you can screw with history? I’ll show you how to REALLY screw with history – and dont you dare criticise me for being unhistorical because thats exactly what YOU are doing too! And by the way I am not going to pretend any of this is true like YOU do! ( To see an unhistorical Kelly biopic look no further than the Kelly idolators favourite version The Last Outlaw : totally full of bullshit but the Kelly idolators like THAT kind of bullshit! )