If you’re wondering why we need another Ned Kelly film, Justin Kurzel knows exactly how you feel.
The acclaimed director of Snowtown admits he was dubious when British producer Hal Vogel asked him if he might be interested in adapting Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang for the screen. “My big apprehension was how do you do another Ned Kelly film, what’s your take on it,” he says.
So instead he went on to direct another much-adapted work – Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – and then a big-budget (and big-headache) film based on the computer game Assassin’s Creed (again with Fassbender starring).
It was only after that, he says, and longing to return to Australia after years away, that he went back to Carey’s novel, which was first published in 2000.
“And I saw the brilliance of it, the particular point of view not just on Ned Kelly but on the idea of identity and how your history can be stolen from you,” says Kurzel.
And once he found a way to answer that fundamental question of “why are we doing this”, he says, “it became an obsession, a project I was thinking about every day”.
Kurzel spent the best part of the next three years on the film – funding fell over in late 2018 just as production was due to start – before it finally debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to strong reviews. Soon after, it was picked up by Stan (owned by Nine, publisher of this masthead), becoming the first major film acquisition by the Australian streaming service.
It was a surprise move on both sides, the sort of thing only a couple of years earlier might have been read as akin to the dreaded “straight-to-video” obituary for a film deemed too risky or flawed to release in cinemas. But Netflix’s strategy of giving cinema releases to awards-worthy titles such as Roma in 2018 and The Irishman, The Two Popes, Marriage Story and The King this year has swiftly changed that particular narrative.
Stan promised the 45-year-old South Australian-raised director and his team a major marketing campaign and a theatrical window from January 9 ahead of a platform release on Australia Day, the sort of profile few independent Australian releases can dream of.
“It’s a really sensitive time in terms of streaming versus theatrical,” he says, referring to the ongoing controversy over a small number of cinema operators agreeing to the short theatrical windows demanded by the streamers while traditional distributors continue to grant the 90-day window deemed essential to persuade people to see films at the cinema. “But at the same time it is harder and harder to make an independent Australian film, and I had Stan come to me with enormous love and enthusiasm and passion for this film, and an idea of how they were going to get it out there.
“I’ve never had my film advertised on billboards before,” Kurzel adds. “That’s pretty exciting when you see a film like ours have a platform next to a big-budget film, not just a poster in an alley or outside the cinema.”
For its part, the streamer promised that this “ambitious new take” on the story of Australia’s most famous bushranger was “guaranteed to get people talking”.
Certainly, Kurzel was determined to steer clear of the familiar tropes of fusty historical drama.
“The big question with a film like this – and I had it with Macbeth, too – is how do you do period and not make it feel like a museum piece or something you’ve seen a thousand times before,” he says. “I didn’t want people looking at four guys on horses speaking in Irish accents and feeling as though that was a million miles away. I wanted people to look at them and go, ‘I kind of know them. I know them now, I knew them 20 years ago, maybe that could be them in the 1870s’. I was after a kind of honesty and an attitude as opposed to an appropriation of what the Kelly Gang might be.”
George MacKay, the 28-year-old English actor who plays Ned as an adult (the remarkable Orlando Schwerdt, who was just 12 at the time, plays Ned as a boy), says his director “viewed the Kelly Gang as a punk band”.
He’s not speaking entirely metaphorically either. As has swiftly become part of the film’s folklore, Kurzel got his four young male leads – Sean Keenan plays Joe Byrne, Louis Hewison is Steve Hart, and Nick Cave’s son Earl plays Ned’s younger brother Dan – to form a band as part of their rehearsal process.
In fact, Kurzel told them on their first day together that he had already booked them a gig at Collingwood’s Gasometer Hotel and they had three weeks to write some songs, come up with a name and get ready to play a set to a crowd that would ultimately number about 300.
“I was trying to get them to become a gang really quickly, and the only way I knew from my past was that you either join a football team or you join a band,” says Kurzel, who used to play music with his brother Jed, who composed the score for the film.
And it worked, too. “We were so chuffed with ourselves when we played the gig and it went well,” says MacKay. “And then a couple of days later we walked onto set and we felt ready, we had the attitude.”
“None of us had been in a band before – let alone in a punk band wearing dresses and war paint,” adds Cave. “But we became inseparable. The filming itself was crazy, emotionally and physically exhausting, but it was bliss to work among my friends.”
There’s undeniably a mad, slightly fevered energy about the scenes in which the gang race headlong towards their bloody end at Glenrowan. And there’s an unmistakable sense you’re seeing this story not from outside but through Ned’s eyes – frequently framed by de facto slits in that famous metal helmet, in the form of windows or gaps in buildings through which he literally peers.
But perhaps the most radical aspect of this take on the story is that it places Ned’s mother, Ellen Kelly, so firmly at the centre of events.
Ellen is played by the magnificent Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Lambs of God) as a firebrand determined not just to protect and provide for her brood but to ensure they never lose sight of what it means to be a Kelly. Which, in short, means to loathe the coppers.
It’s an implacable hatred, but not an unreasonable one. The police are agents, after all, of the English persecution of the Irish, exported from the British Isles to the colonies, of class warfare, of extortion and injustice and social immobility.
When we first meet Ellen she is on her knees, fellating an English police officer (Charlie Hunnam) – not for extra cash, as one Toronto reviewer wrote but, says Davis, “for protection. It gets her and her family a week of not being harassed.”
In Kurzel’s film, as in Carey’s book, the young Ned is clearly a bright and self-reliant child who shows potential to make something of his life. And after saving the son of a wealthy couple from drowning, the possibility of that briefly looms large as the mother (Claudia Karvan) offers to pay for Ned to attend boarding school. But Ellen thinks an “English” school taking her son away would be just another form of oppression, of driving a wedge between the Irish and their culture – “like you did with the blackfella before us”, she says – and she won’t have a bar of it.
In many ways that stubbornness is the root of Ned’s undoing. But Davis has nothing but admiration for Ellen, even given the fact she sold her son into servitude with bushranger Harry Power (played by Russell Crowe) when he was barely in his teens.
“You have to be in the shoes of your own character, so of course I love Ellen,” she says. “She’s great. She’s a really good woman. She feels pretty shit about selling her son, but she needed the money. There are other children to feed, and he’s going to learn how to become a man and get some money. It’s a win-win situation.”
Nor does Davis have anything but praise for Kurzel’s work – “he is one of the most extraordinary directors in the world, and I’ve worked with some pretty good directors”. But then, being married to him, you might expect her to say that.
Not that familiarity always made things easy on set. Take that first day, for instance, when the director asked her to get down on her knees in front of Hunnam, whom she had only just met.
“It was, ‘Hi I’m Essie’, ‘Hi, I’m Charlie’,” she says, laughing at the memory. “It is kind of weird and confronting but it’s a job and we’re all standing and laughing, we’re all professionals. But so much of acting is about excruciating embarrassment. ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ is pretty much every single day of being an actor.”
Well, that and homework. Davis says her husband always presents each of his key actors with a “manifesto” to help them prepare. “It’s literally a three- or four-page document of see this, read that, eat this’,” she says.
Eat this? “Yeah, if you have to be skinny or fat.”
For MacKay, the manifesto included a list of films to watch and music to listen to. “He got us to explore the relationships through scenes from other films,” he says. “One of them was My Own Private Idaho, and Romper Stomper was also a big reference. But they were just ingredients. It was never a case of, ‘Let’s try a scene like in this film’, it was just a way of doing our homework. More than any other film I’ve seen, True History of the Kelly Gang was its own thing.”
Though both are English, MacKay and Cave came to the project knowing something of Kelly by virtue of the fact their fathers are Australian and visits to Australia have been part of their upbringing (MacKay’s first film was PJ Hogan’s Peter Pan, shot on the Gold Coast over eight months when he was 10). But the pair had very different approaches to earlier versions of the story on film.
“I watched the Heath Ledger and the Mick Jagger versions,” says Cave, referring to Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film and Tony Richardson’s much-maligned 1970 version (both simply called Ned Kelly). “I think there’s something cool about the Mick Jagger one in that it’s sort of just Mick Jagger playing Mick Jagger, which is awesome because he’s a rock star, and Ned Kelly was sort of a rock star, too.”
MacKay, though, says he steered clear of those (and other) versions, “because I felt I’d probably get caught up either trying to do something similar, or actively going too far away”.
Being free to tell this story in a fresh way was what it was all about. “Because he’s such a precious icon in Australia I think there’s a tentativeness with which people deal with him,” MacKay says. “And Justin wanted to let go of that, and make the film in the spirit of these guys – ambitious, angry, confused.”
Above all, he says, it was an attempt to capture “what film they would make, rather than saying the things they supposedly said”.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in limited cinemas nationally from January 9, and on Stan from January 26.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.