True History of the Kelly Gang's cross-dressing punk rock outlaw is not quite as radical as he looks

Stan’s new film undercuts its own attempt to subvert the traditional masculinity in which the Ned Kelly myth is steeped

Every generation reinvents Ned Kelly anew.

The new Stan film production True History of the Kelly Gang self-consciously celebrates the innate pliability of the Kelly myth. In director Justin Kurzel’s imagining of the gang’s last stand, graffiti at the Glenrowan Hotel repeats the famous line from William Faulkner: “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s sensibilities transpose well to Australia, a country, like the American south that he writes about, built upon violence and secrets.

In its early (and best) scenes, True History revels in eerie bush, lonely huts and other tropes of the colonial gothic (now almost the default mode for representations of the 19th century outback), with a portly and grizzled Russell Crowe excelling as the bushranger Harry Power.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow through on its interesting attempts to subvert the traditional masculinity in which the Kelly myth is steeped.

The film bases itself very loosely on Peter Carey’s novel of the same name, a text that riffs on Kelly’s “Jerilderie Letter” – itself a piece of deliberate mythologising by the outlaw himself. But, in a different way, Kurzel also owes a great deal to little book published in 1968, a volume called Ned Kelly: Man or Myth.

A scene from True History of the Kelly Gang
Russell Crowe in True History of the Kelly Gang. Photograph: Stan

Music fans will know Colin F Cave, the editor of that volume, from biographical writing about his son, Nick, who grew up not so far from Glenrowan and then expressed, throughout his career, a profound ambivalence towards his stern father – at one stage even touring under the moniker Nick Cave: Man or Myth.

That’s relevant to the new movie, not only because True History features Nick’s son, Earl, as Dan Kelly, but because it depicts the bushrangers as Cave-like punk rockers.

As Ned, George MacKay (in a mesmerising performance) eschews the flowing beard now associated with urban hipsters for a spiky, clean-cut look drawn from the sharpie gangs of suburban Australia. When Ned swears at the police harassing his family, he sounds like Johnny Rotten (another Irishman) on the Bill Grundy Show; in Glenrowan, prior to the final shootout, he grimaces and contorts himself like a young Iggy Pop.

In the film’s publicity material, Kurzel suggests, plausibly enough, that a bushranger gang would have bonded much as bands like the Birthday Party and the Saints did in their early years.

The punk aesthetic accentuates the generationalism at the centre of the drama. Ned’s shown as both repelled and obsessed by his mother, Ellen (played as a “Granny Evil” crime matriarch by Essie Davis), while his gang draws support from damaged young men embracing the Irish nationalism of their absent or dysfunctional fathers.

The rebellion of these Good Sons manifests, in particular, through their ambivalence to traditional gender norms.

In his novel, Carey builds on historical references to gang members riding in women’s clothing (as per Sidney Nolan’s painting Steve Hart Dressed as A Girl) to present the Kellys as members of an agrarian secret society known as the Sons of Sieve, whose initiates disguise themselves through cross-dressing.

A scene from True History of the Kelly Gang
The rebellion of these Good Sons manifests through their ambivalence to traditional gender norms. Photograph: Stan

The film takes this idea and runs with it, consciously sexualising the male camaraderie it celebrates. In True History, Ned might conceive a daughter with Thomasin McKenzie’s Mary Hearn, but he shows more obvious passion wrestling half-naked with his lieutenant Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan).

More strikingly, Ned and his band wear long evening gowns during the most iconic episodes from the legend, including the Stringybark Creek massacre and the Siege of Glenrowan.

It’s a bold presentation, given the conventional status of Kelly as an icon of Australian hypermasculinity. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t quite work.

When Ned and his men seize the hotel where their last stand will play out, the scenes of their hooded and kneeling captives deliberately invoke an Isis hostage video. It’s a comparison deserving of further exploration.

The Kelly outbreak centred, after all, on young Irish Catholics lashing out at an establishment that racialised their nationality and faith. In the 21st century, we know something about armed confrontations between crack police units and bands of bearded second-generation immigrants justifying their semi-political, semi-criminal rebellion by a particular understanding of religion and culture.

Indeed, the conventional presentation of Ned Kelly as an icon of the bush obscures the importance of the city – and the modernity that it represents – in his story.

Russell Crowe in True History of the Kelly Gang
Ordinary people in the city – many of whom shared his Irish heritage – followed Ned Kelly’s trial closely. Photograph: Toronto International Film Festival

The police who destroyed the gang arrived at Glenrowan not on horseback but in a train, part of the rail system increasingly traversing the state. The telegraph conveyed news of Kelly’s capture back to Melbourne so that up-to-date reports appeared in the next day’s papers.

The existence of a mass circulation media meant support for Kelly wasn’t simply located in Kelly country but extended to the working class of Melbourne – so much so that at one stage Punch caricatured him as the ruler of the colony, dancing around a flag labelled “Communism” arm-in-arm with the liberal politician Graham Berry and a personification of the Age newspaper.

Ordinary people in the city – many of whom shared his Irish heritage – followed Kelly’s trial closely. A crowd of 7,000 people came to the Hippodrome in Exhibition Street to protest against the death sentence. A petition for clemency gathered 65,000 signatures; 5,000 people assembled at the Old Melbourne Gaol on execution day. Shocked at such outpourings, the Bendigo Independent concluded that respectable society stood upon “a fearful volcano”.

The true history contains, then, plenty of material that True History might have drawn upon for a radical reinvention of the myth, one that recentred the story on social conflicts still present in urban life and so said something more about the contemporary function of heterosexuality and gender.

Instead, the film replicates the historic problem with the punk aesthetic it celebrates, by demonstrating the ease with which symbolic rebellion can be recuperated.

The frisson produced by begowned outlaws dissipates as Dan Kelly provides a “no homo” explanation of the outfits. They’re a provocation, he says, intended to terrify and disorient the gang’s enemies. “Nothing scares a man like crazy,” he tells Ned, in a phrase repeated throughout the film.

A scene from True History of the Kelly Gang
The Kelly story has a way of eluding those who would portray it. Photograph: Toronto International Film Festival

The association of cross-dressing with the Sons of Sieve makes it, paradoxically, a signifier of a paternal lineage, so that, when the bushranger promises his mother to “die like a Kelly”, he’s safely reinscribed into a heterosexual family – almost as if, at the last moment, the filmmakers stepped back from the implications of an overtly queer Ned.

Again, a Nick Cave anecdote comes to mind. As a boarder at Caulfield Grammar, Cave belonged to a coterie of boys fond of art rather than sport. “There’s no two ways about it,” he later told an interviewer, “we were the school poofters.” According to one story, Cave carried a handbag to class – and then, when others abused him, used the bag (suitably weighted with a brick) as a weapon.

There’s something of that in the movie, as the ambiguity of the men’s sexuality gets dispelled through a violence associated with conventional masculinity. It’s a shame, because, at its best, the film crackles with energy and invention.

But the Kelly story has a way of eluding those who would portray it. Like all good legends, it exceeds the bounds of any single presentation – and demands, always, to be told again.

• True History of the Kelly Gang is showing in Australian cinemas from 9 January and available to stream on Stan from 26 January


Jeff Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

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