One hundred and forty years after he swung by his neck, outlaw Ned Kelly — the son of an Irish convict and murderer of three policemen — still looms large in the Australian imagination. There are Ned Kelly pies (cheese, bacon, steak sauce, and hard-boiled egg). Ned Kelly beer. Ned Kelly museums and fun fairs. In his native Victoria, now a popular wine region, tourists might see his image at the side of the road, glass in hand.
“He’s become a little bit of an amusement park in Australia. Even the far right use him as a kind of symbol of white Australian history,” says Australian director Justin Kurzel, discussing his adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
“I was fascinated by that, how this 25-year-old suddenly came to mean so much to so many people, who kind of push and pull their identities and their agendas through Ned, and how this mythology of him has just grown and grown.”
English actor George MacKay, who made such an impression as the World War I soldier racing to prevent catastrophe in Sam Mendes’ 1917 takes on the role of the 19th century outlaw. Kurzel’s wife, Essie Davis, plays Kelly’s fierce mother Ellen, while Earl Cave (son of music legend Nick) portrays his younger brother, Dan. Russell Crowe plays the bushranger who schools young Ned in the art of banditry. Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult appear as Kelly antagonists.
Kelly’s tale has been a movie staple since the silent era, The Story of the Kelly Gang, released in 1906 is thought to be cinema’s first full-length feature. More recently, in films both titled Ned Kelly, the outlaw has been played by Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger in (2008).
In Australia, Kelly has long been regarded as an underdog and Robin Hood-like figure, although Kurzel says more recently there has been a shift that acknowledges that he was a cop killer. Balancing those two poles while returning a sense of corporeality to a man who long ago passed into myth was among the challenges Kurzel faced in telling Kelly’s story.
“He’s become a symbol, and even Peter’s book was talking about how someone’s history can be stolen,” says Kurzel. “If you don’t mark it down and record it, then someone’s going to come along and make a pie out of you.
“The film was an opportunity to really interrogate Australia and especially white Australia through this character, and the notion that we can change someone to fit our agendas and sense of who we are.”
True History of the Kelly Gang marks a homecoming for Kurzel, who made his debut in 2011 with The Snowtown Murders. In the intervening years, he left Australia to make Macbeth (2015) and Assassin’s Creed (2016). It was during that time away that the director found MacKay when the young actor auditioned for Macbeth. He didn’t get the role, but Kurzel remembered him when it was time to cast Ned.
“I was really aware that I wanted to create a kind of Ned who you felt he had other possibilities,” says Kurzel. “He could have been prime minister. He could’ve been Pater Carey. But he wasn’t. He was born with that Kelly name and that past and being Irish.
“I wanted a really good person (to play Ned). I wanted people to look at Ned and go, ‘There’s absolute goodness in this man and there’s possibilities and then sort of shift and change and transform that. There’s an inherent beauty about George and a sense of timelessness about him. I wanted audiences to really trust George and feel a little safe with him at the beginning, so he could kind of pull them into the kind of maelstrom of what Ned was going to become.”
Kurzel shot in Kelly country — Winton, Victoria — but a lot has changed in the intervening decades. The area where Kelly roamed was a lush forest and wetlands, prized by the Aboriginal population for the turtles and fish and other food it provided. But 20 years ago, a dam went up. The trees and the landscape died in an ecological disaster.
“It’s a man-made tragedy there, but at the same time, it’s a most extraordinary beautiful, spooky, cursed kind of landscape,” says Kurzel. “There was a visual kind of motif of these trees that we wanted to play all the way through the film and have the landscape haunt the characters. We were lucky to find a world that set the film up and that reflected the point of view of Ned a little bit more.”
The director is well aware that it is probably impossible to tell any kind of “true” history of Ned Kelly and his gang, but he finds satisfaction in what he has been able to add to the legend. Between screenwriter Shaun Grant’s adaptation of Carey’s book, MacKay’s multifaceted performance, and Kurzel’s own directorial choices, he reckons his film is the most nuanced portrayal of Australia’s outlaw hero yet.
“How do you tell this story really fresh and new again, especially in Australia? And how can it feel modern and contemporary without setting it today? That was very important to us,” Kurzel says. “Ned is so associated with a certain sort of alpha masculinity. It was so lovely to just kind of do a sort of Ned for everyone.”
True History of the Kelly Gang will be available to rent on digital and cable platforms April 24.