Along with reading, writing, and summer class-taking, I have taken this quarantine-given (or rather, forced) opportunity to watch as many new films as I can.
Most recently, I took a chance on an independent Australian film I’d heard about called “True History of the Kelly Gang.” The film is based on a novel of the same name and presents a fictionalized account of the life story of notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
Born into the British colony of Victoria in 1854, Kelly and his family faced persecution by Victoria Police and felt exploited by the “squattocracy,” which referred to those who lay claim to crown land that they had no legal rights to. Ned’s childhood was a brief and unhappy one – he was forced to become the man of the house at age 12 after his father, a transported convict, died after serving a prison sentence.
In later years, Ned and his mother were involved in a violent confrontation with a police officer at their home. Ned was able to escape, fleeing into the bush, but his mother was arrested. An increasingly radicalized Ned vowed revenge, becoming a gang leader, police murderer, and the last of the Australian bushrangers.
Ned’s story is a highly controversial one, with some remembering him as a hero and others regarding him as a reckless, cold-blooded killer. This, I imagine, only made telling his story more challenging and exciting from a filmmaker’s perspective. How does one go about bringing that story to life? How could one help the audience understand the world Ned Kelly grew up in – how it treated him and those he loved – even if that love was toxic and misplaced?
Director Justin Kurzel’s answer was to use the landscape. The Australian bush, also known as the hinterland or the outback, is harsh and unforgiving, much like the life Ned Kelly was born into. The bush was a place of refuge for outlaws like Kelly, where they hid from the authorities and took up thieving and killing as a way of life. These bushrangers were synonymous with the cowboys of the Wild West, engaging in shootouts and hold-ups, although the life of a cowboy was always much more glamorized in pop culture.
Thanks to compelling visuals shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner, the physical setting of “True History” is almost a character in itself. It is largely devoid of life and color, with the exception of Ned Kelly’s red shirt and the occasional pastel dress, worn by his fellow cross-dressing gang members.
The film opens on a long and sweeping shot of the stark landscape, tracking a hooded figure on horseback as we hear Ned Kelly begin to recount his story with a promise: “Know that I shall tell no lie, let me burn in hell should I speak false.”
The land is hellish and otherworldly, with barren trees perhaps ravaged by forest fire that seem to writhe in pain. Wegner capitalizes on this, playing with shadows to make the visuals even more provocative.
There is no sunshine or warmth in this place Ned Kelly called home – it is cold and dark, the only escape coming from rapid flashes of light. Sometimes they mimic lightning, other times they are blatantly used by the filmmakers to emphasize the nightmarish feel of the film.
If the Kurzel’s aim with “True History” was to explore the why and how of this man whom some deem a Robin Hood and others a villain, I think he succeeded. The desolate earth paints a haunting portrait of Ned Kelly’s tormented mind. This was a man who grew up to be as ruthless as the land that raised him.