I finally decided I should see this movie for myself, though as most will know I had already expressed a view, based on what most others in Kelly world circles have said about it, that I might not. Aidan Phelan on A Guide to Australian Bushrangers had excoriated the movie in quite a relentless way, decrying everything in it from the dialogue to the editing. His partner at An Outlaws Journal wrote that “The whole thing is offensive, grotesque and uncomfortable to watch. It’s apparent to me that this was the director’s juvenile attempt, among other things, to lash out at ‘masculinity’. And doing so in this way is nothing short of cowardice.” She then recommended that nobody go and see it. At “Such is Life: the Ned Kelly Story” the reviewer wrote “for the most part, you sit and wonder what is actually going on! From the script to the set, to the costuming to the cinematography.”
Typical Facebook comments were things like this :
“Don’t bother writing a review (with all due respect) we who follow the Kelly saga know that this film should never have been released.”
“The reviews lve seen and exactly what l thought… pure shit..”
“What is this absolute rubbish? They have to be kidding…..they are aren’t they? OMG”
“I will be watching but only so when I give my review on this garbage it will be fact”
Actual movie critics both loved and hated it:
“A near-incoherent ensemble piece that squanders an enviable cast, it’s the latest in a long line of films to take aim at Ned Kelly, only to glance off his armour, barely leaving a mark.”
“Post-modern deconstructionist expressionistic anachronistic elliptical storytelling is my jam, and Justin Kurzel’s fourth feature is full of it. This is a feast for the senses, a gloriously indulgent examination of myth-making.”
So, as it was a wet Friday night and I was bored with the tennis, I paid my subscription to Stan, connected my Laptop to the Big Screen TV and clicked Go. Several reviews had mentioned it started with a sex scene between Mrs Kelly and a policeman – but no it started with a hypnotic throbbing soundtrack, a voiceover of Ned addressing his daughter about truth and fiction, and an aerial shot of a white horse galloping furiously across a dried swamp in a vast forest of blackened dead trees, the riders red dress flowing out behind. The scene was almost alien, the mood heavy and apprehensive as the jagged angles of the darkly forbidding Kelly shanty came into view below, clothes flapping on the line as the camera descended towards a slit-like window, tension rising about what fright we might be about to see inside.
It was intense and mesmerizing – not what I had been expecting – and I barely moved again until the End credits began to roll. And in the morning, I watched it all again – it really is that good!
The thing that amazed me about this film is that it refers in some way or other to almost everything you’ve ever heard in the Kelly stories , all the memes and the rumours and tales are there, flashing past sometimes so fast you’ll miss them if you blink. If you only had a passing knowledge of the Kelly stories you would probably miss much of it, but there are no one-dimensional characters, and the stories are not presented as the same tired old versions of Kelly myths – you have to watch and listen closely to recognise them in thier reimagined form. I loved the fact that George Mackay, the adult Ned, had the smoothest most hairless and innocent face you could ever imagine, and yet looking as unlike Ned Kelly as any man could be, he was compelling and brilliant. This is a journey I find exhilarating to be taken on, like viewing a building from a side that’s never photographed and then suddenly realising what it is that you’re looking at.
The movie tells the Kelly stories in an imaginative and wildly new way – complicated, crazy, confronting, impossible, thought provoking, and mixed about. Its dramatic, violent, tragic, sad, vulgar and rough and yet mostly believable and certainly recognizable as the Kelly story in an utterly compelling way – but not as we know it. It’s like someone taking a piece of paper and folding it into a humpback whale instead of a swan.
And at that point, because it doesn’t conform to what the Kelly devotees want it to, seeing it all reinterpreted, they block their ears and shut their eyes and start crying ‘blasphemy’! The irony of course is that their own preferred versions are also largely fictional, made-up versions of the true story that they cling to rigidly like fundamentalists, intolerant of another version or any challenge to their own.
The truth about this movie, which Kelly devotees seem to have missed because of their indignant response to the story not being told the way they like it, is that it is highly sympathetic to Ned Kelly. The young Ned is brilliantly played as a beautiful and morally sensitive but wise young boy who resists the pressure of poverty and parentage to yield to criminality and brutality. He saves Dick Shelton – but steals jewellery from his mother – and demonstrates a higher loyalty to his family by slaughtering a neighbour’s cow – but confesses to police to having done so. Ultimately though, he is broken down by the horrors around him, the things he’s forced to witness and to do, the betrayals he endures, and he gradually descends into the abyss, into madness and murder, the perfect Greek tragedy. This was the plot that Aidan Phelan seems to have missed: according to him: “The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation”. No, it’s the essence of the Kelly myth, expressed by Kelly himself, that police drive men to madness.
I was going to write that everyone interested in the Kelly story ought to see this film, but it’s not for everyone, because not everyone finds it entertaining to have their closed minds challenged. But for those who do, this film doesn’t disappoint. Its incredibly entertaining.