The quest to make a great Ned Kelly movie has consumed Australian film-makers since the dawn of cinema, even playing a part in the formation of the medium itself: 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang was not only Australia’s first ever feature film, but the first made anywhere in the world.
Since then, the legendary bushranger’s cinematic journey has proven long and chequered, but enters an exciting new phase with South Australia-born director Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s critically acclaimed novel True History of the Kelly Gang, which begins shooting in Victoria in March.
The cast was announced earlier this month, with English actor George MacKay assigned the all-important, bushy-bearded, gun-toting role. He’ll be joined by heavy hitters Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult and Essie Davis. But by far the most significant person attached to the film is Kurzel himself.
In the history of the cinema, I doubt there has ever been a better or more exciting choice of film-maker to bring the famous outlaw and folk hero’s story to the screen.
The word “auteur” is often considered in terms of genres and storytelling techniques; in Kurzel’s oeuvre it is more about evoking a certain kind of gut-sinking feeling. The 43-year-old creates films that drip with dreadful anticipation. Snowtown, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed – his three features to date – are intensely atmospheric affairs, festering with a sense that something foul is about to go down.
This feeling is stretched out for huge chunks, like monstrously long pregnant pauses. Applying this sensation to a Ned Kelly film – as well as Kurzel’s knack for conjuring heightened, panicked, sometimes weepingly beautiful and highly stylised realism – is a thrilling proposition. Something about the grim and near-nihilistic flavour of Kurzel’s works suggests his film will not be another clunky, uncritical portrait of the legend-making bandit.
The director is also in the advantageous position of being able to learn from past mistakes, of which there have been many. Was The Story of the Kelly Gang a great film? Such a distinction is unjustifiable given we have access to so little of it – and what remains exhibits an understandably (given the time it was made) primitive grasp of cinematic language.
The word “great” is unlikely to have ever been applied, by anybody, to 1951’s The Glenrowan Affair, an embarrassingly inept rumination on the Kelly legend from writer/director Rupert Kathner. That film is narrated by a sketch artist who travels across Australia and talks to people “who know the real history of the country”. These include a man who goes by the name Old Dinny, but some say used to be called Dan (hint hint). It is a slow and stodgy drama, bogged down by clumsy writing and outrageously bad performances.
The next major crack at a Ned Kelly picture, from Academy Award-winning English director Tony Richardson, was more ambitious, more bizarre and almost as badly botched. The “actor” hired to don the tin hat for 1970’s Ned Kelly was, of all people, Mick Jagger. As other critics before me have observed, he looks more Amish than Irish-Australian.
The Rolling Stones rocker may have presence on stage, but on screen he fizzles, with barely a hint of magnetism in a featherweight and bizarrely tension-free performance.
Richardson and Jagger turn the Kelly gang’s story into a folksy semi-musical, with recordings from Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The film is experimental but slow, uneven and dull as ditchwater. The director later described it as “stillborn” and Jagger effectively disowned it. Neither turned up for the world premiere, and – unsurprisingly – the critics pounced.
The reception for director Gregor Jordan’s 2003 drama of Ned Kelly, with Heath Ledger in the starring role (reuniting the maker and star of the offbeat crime caper Two Hands), fared slightly better.
Ledger was certainly an improvement on Jagger, but I struggle to decide which of these films I prefer. Maybe Richardson’s. It is more infuriating, but Jordan’s is soapy and artificial: the sort of wishy-washy, ye-olde production in which even exterior sequences feel like they were filmed on sound stages.
There have been other attempts throughout the years, including three feature films spearheaded by director Harry Southwell in the 1920s and 30s. Also a couple of TV movies: one from 1977 with John Waters as Ned Kelly, and another from 1980 with John Jarratt.
But no actor has proven to be the definitive on-screen Ned Kelly, and no director has made a great Ned Kelly movie.
Fingers crossed that Kurzel, with his often enthralling and always dread-inducing style, can deliver the goods.
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