True History of the Kelly Gang: Stranded, by David Bax
If you suspect nepotism when you see that Jed Kurzel, the composer of the score for True History of the Kelly Gang, is the younger brother of the film’s director, Justin Kurzel, first know that Jed is already an established talent in his own right, having composed music for Slow West, The Babadook, The Nightingale and others. Also, rest assured that his work in True History is top notch; the rhythmic churning of the score here is similar to Mark Korven’s work in The Lighthouse last year. Beneath all that, though, reflect on the notion that brothers working together is in keeping with the film’s guiding beliefs in fraternity and shared identity among Australians, through the good and, mostly, through the bad.
When we first meet young Ned (Orlander Schwerdt), he’s a boy in Beveridge, Victoria, not too far from the snowy High Country (yes, apparently, it snows in Australia). When his ineffectual father (Ben Corbett) dies, local constable Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) uses his clout to harass Ned’s mother, Ellen (Essie Davis). Short of money and needing her young son to learn a trade of his own, she sells him to Harry Power (Russell Crowe), who teaches him the ways of the bushranger (outlaw; highway robber) that will guide him when he becomes a man (George MacKay) and must contend with another abusive constable (Nicholas Hoult). Most of the years of glory and notoriety for which Kelly is remembered happen off screen, with the lion’s share of the running time given to his long, bumpy rise and short, sharp fall.
Screenwriter Shaun Grant, in adapting Peter Carey’s novel, retains the crucial detail (which may or may not have been invented) of Kelly and the gang he eventually captains carrying out their raids and robberies while dressed in women’s frocks. The jarringly anachronistic punk rock on the soundtrack indicates that this queering of a beloved national folk hero may be simple provocation. But, when taken along with Ned’s intimate camaraderie with his friend and cohort Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), the choice suggests a more deeply motivated attempt to split heteronormativity from the rugged masculinity of Australian identity.
MacKay is, unfortunately, best known for his starring but empty role in Sam Mendes’ polystyrene, ephemeral visual effects reel of a movie, 1917. But he does great work here with his face and body, embodying Kelly as both a raw nerve and a cocked trigger, an abused dog you pity but don’t want to get within snapping distance of. For that matter, all of the cast is strong, especially Schwerdt as young Kelly and Hunnam, whose usual distant gaze fits well for a man who despises the country he’s assigned to oversee and thus terrorizes it out of spite and resentment but also simply as a way to keep himself distracted until he can get the hell out of there.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of True History is Justin Kurzel himself. Visually, he’s trafficking in much the same gothic mythologizing as he did in 2015’s Macbeth; the new film even begins with the sardonic disclaimer, “Nothing you’re about to see is true.” But a style that previously felt like posturing now supports substance. When he depicts Victoria as a desolate hell of bare trees and screeching birds, he still foregrounds human relationships, presenting a dichotomy of love and fear that he positions as crucial to Australianness. It’s a cliche to say so but True History seems to be a personal film for Kurzel.
It’s also a Western and all Westerns, including–especially, in fact–revisionist ones like True History are reflections on national self-image. Kurzel’s fatalism presents us with a country of the damned. Damned by the English and Irish to live on a penal colony; damned to perdition for the sins they’ve visited upon the land and its native inhabitants. When one character laments, “Everything in this country is trying to kill us,” it’s both a comment on the familiar trope of Australia’s famously deadly wildlife and on the notion that he and his kind are not wanted there. Ned–lied to and abused as a child, a criminal and a killer as an adult–is Australia personified. Ned’s exploits are not the stuff of paperback adventures. They are losses or hollow victories at best, as are other bits of Australian history name-checked throughout. Americans like myself probably don’t know what words like “Vinegar Hill” and “Eureka stockade” mean (though they’re worth looking up). But, along with the events of True History of the Kelly Gang, they form a picture of a nation not unlike our own, born in blood and cruelty for which it can never atone and yet one that, like John Ford before him, Kurzel loves deeply.