It’s an otherwise ordinary night at The Gasometer, a thriving music venue in one of Melbourne’s grand old inner-city pubs. The punters mill about, nursing pots of beer, waiting for the bands to begin. When they do, a mysterious Australian punk outfit takes to the small stage. They call themselves Fleshlight. No one has heard of them. Indeed, the audience has no idea this is not actually a true band but a bunch of guys famous for other things.
Look closely and you might recognise the vaguely familiar faces. The pale-skinned young man with long dark hair and a striking resemblance to Nick Cave? That’s his son, Earl. The blond guy with the feline face: was he in Puberty Blues and Glitch? That’s Australian actor Sean Keenan. And the sinewy one in the white négligée who reminds you of Heath Ledger? That’s rising star George MacKay, a British actor whose credits include Captain Fantastic, alongside Viggo Mortensen.
The band’s guitar thrashing and punk strutting is infectious; the crowd swells to about 350. A dark-bearded bear of a man slips into the back of the room. It’s Justin Kurzel, who directed the acclaimed 2011 feature Snowtown. He knows these four young men (the fourth is first-time actor Louis Hewison) because right now, he’s their boss. And this whole exercise – making his actors come up with a song list and play a gig in less than three weeks – is his idea of a bonding exercise. Tonight, Kurzel is in the gang-creating business for his “passion project”, True History of the Kelly Gang, based on Peter Carey’s prize-winning novel of the same name, which will be in cinemas from January 9 and on Stan from Australia Day. Up there on stage is Kurzel’s Kelly Gang: MacKay as the iconic outlaw Ned, Cave as his brother Dan, Keenan as Ned’s best mate, Joe Byrne, and Hewison as gang member Steve Hart.
Kurzel is so impressed by the songs that night that he will use two in the film. Before all that, he has to see if his little experiment works. When the gang comes off stage, Kurzel watches them carefully: they lean on each other, light each other’s cigarettes, buy each other drinks. It works. On set, the four become so tight-knit that everyone else, particularly the actors playing the hated policemen, become outsiders. (Kurzel says Russell Crowe, who plays the wily old bushranger Harry Power, shouted the young actors a bonding trip to a shooting range, but noted they’d already formed a strong pack mentality.)
This Gasometer gig is just one notable chapter in the making of this Ned Kelly film. The film had to be reimagined on half its original budget after its first financing deal fell through (Kurzel could not afford the cops at the Glenrowan siege, or the train the Kelly Gang attempted to derail). Kurzel’s wife, Essie Davis – who is wonderful as Ned’s mother, Ellen – broke a rib during filming. Then, one eerie night in Victoria’s Winton Wetlands, Kurzel thought the set had been visited by ghosts. And even before the film was finished, it was being slammed for historical inaccuracy.
“Films about Ned and his myth just keep getting sillier,” wrote Doug Morrissey, who did his PhD on the gang and is the author of several Kelly books, in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald. There’s plenty in this film to outrage Kelly devotees. For starters, Kurzel’s Kelly has no beard. Even more controversially, Kurzel often puts the gang in dresses. But, as I discover on my own journey into the Kelly myth – on which I completely change my mind about Australia’s most famous bushranger – the decision to put the gang in frocks isn’t as crazy as it first seems.
About an hour’s drive north of Melbourne, at a place called Monegeetta, there’s an Italianate mansion in a state of elegant decay. Mintaro, completed in 1881, the year after Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol, is a grand home that has the occasional weed growing from its ornate cornices. The former owner dumped cars in its once-manicured grounds. But on this August day, the cars are gone and a swarm of film crew in black puffer jackets has taken over. Galahs watch the industrious to-and-fro from Mintaro’s scraggly old pines.
In the catering tent near the entrance gate, the film’s star, George MacKay, is ready for his porridge (it’s 2pm, but everyone was shooting until midnight last night). He asks a crew member politely for his breakfast. MacKay – whose first role, aged nine, was in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 version of Peter Pan – tells me the whole True History experience has been “kind of massive”. It’s not just the pop-up band experiment. He’s learnt how to chop wood, build a fence and ride a horse, too. And the actor, who grew up in London, has done a deep dive into the national culture of his Australian father, Paul MacKay. “I feel so honoured to do this, but not necessarily because of the guys who have done it before,” he says, when I ask him if he feels the weight of a role played previously by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. “I’m just trying to treat it as its own thing. Not a canon of Neds.”
Today they’re filming a scene inside Mintaro – which is, among other things, a brothel in the film – as well as using some of its rustic wooden outbuildings. As the crew graze the buffet, a producer presents the day’s schedule and declares that filming will include a Shetland pony inside the mansion, a baby and gunfire. (What could possibly go wrong?)
I head down Mintaro’s driveway, passing two men deep in conversation. I later realise they are Kurzel, hunkered against the cold in his beanie, and Hal Vogel, one of his producers. In 2011, Vogel, a British producer, was visiting Peter Carey’s agent in London. Irish film director Neil Jordan had only recently relinquished the rights to True History and now they were available. “Everybody said, ‘That’s just a terrible idea. Nobody is going to give you money to make another Ned Kelly film,’ ” Vogel tells me a little while later, outside Mintaro.
The people who said that to Vogel do have a point: how many Ned Kelly films does the world need? There are nearly a dozen now, including the world’s first feature film in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang; a 1970 effort with Mick Jagger as Ned that its director, Tony Richardson, described as “stillborn”; and a crowd-funded short film, Stringybark, released earlier this year. And when Vogel was considering the rights to True History, only eight years had elapsed since Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly, starring Ledger, which had been released to tepid reviews.
But Vogel had seen Kurzel’s Snowtown – “an incredibly exciting piece of cinema” – and thought the next telling of Ned Kelly would work in the director’s hands. “It would be a bolder, darker version of the story,” he says. And with this package – Carey’s book, plus Kurzel as director – Vogel locked in the film’s original finance deal from an American investor (along with Screen Australia and Film Victoria). After that fell through, French distributor Memento Films joined the two Australian funding bodies with a slashed budget.
Kurzel agreed to direct the film, but had moved with his family – Davis and two daughters – to London, where he was directing a film version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, which was released in 2015. His next film brought him, as Shakespeare’s witches would say, a lot of double, double toil and trouble. Assassin’s Creed, based on the popular video game, was a hell-broth of competing agendas, creative differences and, in the end, almost universally bad reviews (“Ridiculous and turgid,” declared critic Simon Abrams).
“When you make something like Assassin’s you’re trying to satisfy many, many voices,” Kurzel tells me later. “I genuinely tried to do that, but in juggling those different voices you lose yourself. It was incredibly frustrating.” By the time Kurzel emerged from that experience, and turned his mind again to True History – his Snowtown collaborator, award-winning screenwriter Shaun Grant, was adapting the book for the screen – it was with an aching, desperate home sickness. He wanted to film in Australia, work with Australians, and capture the Australian landscape. He also needed to find his voice again.
“You know, when I came out of that whole experience [with Assassin], I sort of sat back and went, ‘Who the f… are you? What have you got? What do you like? What are you prepared to put on the line?’ It was kind of like a fever, like ‘Come on! Why did you start making films in the first place? And why do you want to make this film?’ ”
In his homesickness, he fell in love with True History and “desperately” wanted to follow it through. The director, who was born in Gawler, a small town just outside Adelaide, also wanted to be brave again, to take risks: just like he did when he employed non-actors in Snowtown. He wanted to “push and push and push ideas”. And one of his bravest ideas was the liberal use of dresses – which, on this visit to the film’s set, I’m still far from clear on. To work that out, I need to read Carey’s book.
The first thing to say about Carey’s novel is that it is not true. When it was released in 2000, many missed the title’s hint: history is history; “true history” is subjective. Carey concocted a sweetheart for Ned, and a daughter. He took the skeleton of real events in Victoria’s Kelly Country in the late 1800s and draped a dress of fiction over it.
In the book, Ned’s father, Red, owns a dress hemmed with roses. When Ned finds it, his stomach knots, “a mighty anger” comes upon him. But later he realises his father was a member of a group of Irish social bandits called the Sons of Sieve, who donned frocks to wrong-foot the English and to make them think they were mad – the dress as war mask, essentially. While this really was done in Ireland, the Sons of Sieve are another of Carey’s concoctions. There is no evidence that the Kelly Gang took to wearing frocks as a nod to Irish warrior ways. But here’s the twist: there are historical reports of the Kelly Gang as cross-dressers.
You don’t have to look far for the signposts. One of Sidney Nolan’s celebrated Ned Kelly series is Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl (1947). In the painting, Hart, rocking a floral dress and dainty boots, sits side-saddle, eyeing the viewer unflinchingly, a hand on his steed, another cupping the reins. Nolan had read, and was inspired by, J.J. Kenneally’s influential 1929 book The Inner History of the Kelly Gang, which mentions that Hart “frequently rode about in feminine attire”. What to make of this? Where’s an expert in Australian 19th-century cross-dressing when you need one?
After a bit of digging around the history departments of several universities, I find my expert. Her name is Lucy Chesser and her book, Parting with My Sex: Cross-Dressing, Inversion and Sexuality in Australian Cultural Life, is the definitive history of cross-dressing in colonial-era Australia. She’d searched for the original sources for Kenneally’s statement and couldn’t find any. But, she tells me over the phone, the 1881 Royal Commission into the Victorian Police did record one reported sighting of Ned Kelly in a dress. And one of the policemen, trying to excuse himself for firing on female hostages at Glenrowan, gave evidence that he’d thought the bushrangers might be dressed as women during the siege.
Since Chesser’s 2008 book, further evidence has been unearthed, as Australia’s colonial-era newspapers are progressively digitised on Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online database. Writers Leo Kennedy – the great-grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, whom Kelly murdered at the Stringybark Creek ambush – and Mic Looby dug up a fascinating little nugget in their Kelly book, Black Snake, published last year. On January 4, 1879, Melbourne newspaper The Argus ran a piece from the Victorian town of Mansfield, while the gang was still at large after the Stringybark murders the previous October. “Two awkward-looking women have been in Mansfield the past two days,” the paper’s correspondent wrote. “A gentleman said he could almost swear that the features of one of the women were those of Steve Hart, one of the murderers. Later in the day the supposed Steve Hart was seated in a side-saddle on horseback, leading another horse …”
Chesser puts it like this: there is evidence the Kelly Gang wore dresses, “but not a lot”, and if they did, it wasn’t unusual for their time. Back then, she says, the main dramatic entertainment was theatre. It was performed everywhere – tents, halls, homes – by amateur family troupes or travelling theatre groups. “Men and women played parts of the opposite sex, so they would dress in each other’s clothes,” she says. “There was a blurry edge between what’s on stage and what is not. And you can imagine how easily somebody dressed up for a family performance could then decide to go on a little parade around town to see if anyone recognised them. It was more common that you might expect.”
And, of course, there may have been that element of criminal disguise with the Kellys. “I just think Carey made too much out of it, and it’s kind of titillating for an audience [that is] quick to see people in the past as a bit boring,” she says. “There was a lot more rule-breaking in those days than we give them credit for.” For Kurzel, Carey’s cross-dressing theme was “a huge part of what made me fall in love with the book”. And it gave the director an opportunity to push and prod at what it is to be an Australian man.
I’m sitting with the film crew under a marquee. Everyone is watching small screens that reveal the action as it is filmed about 20 metres from us, inside one of Mintaro’s timber outbuildings. We have headphones on to hear the dialogue. Kurzel quietly coaxes his young Kelly Gang charges: “Then have little giggle fits.” One of the gang repeats his line about a “massive erection” and it’s the sort of language that seems out of place. More than a year later, when I finally see the film, I realise it’s not. True History, like Kurzel’s other films, has a strong masculine vein running through it, and certainly masculine violence. There’s a lot of penis action, and quite a few penises not having a very good time.
In one of the opening scenes, Davis’s Ellen Kelly fellates Sergeant O’Neill, played by Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam. (Directing his wife in this scene was, Kurzel tells me later, a little confronting: “There was something very odd about that, as the camera slowly tracked in …”) In another scene, a dead bushranger is found tied to a tree, his penis cut off and shoved into his mouth. In yet another scene, Crowe’s character Harry Power ties a rope around O’Neill’s penis after bursting in on him in bed with a woman. Power then directs the young Ned to shoot O’Neill’s penis off (he doesn’t, thankfully). To me, all of this seems over-the-top and gratuitous; then again, in the first few pages of Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, his 8000-word manifesto, he describes arranging a special delivery to his neighbour McCormack: a note with a pair of calf’s testicles to – as the police later recorded – “better shag his wife”.
For Kurzel, this is all an exploration of the chiselled side of Australian men, whom, he reckons, are strongly “alpha”. “The white Australian male has a very particular masculinity, and the characters in the film are continually wrestling with what it is to be an Australian male,” he says. “And to graduate Ned into becoming a man, what does he have to do? Shoot the cock off a cop.
“I just remember growing up with it all the time, being surrounded by really strong Australian males and football teams. And you continually question how you fit into that. And if you don’t fit, what else is there? Maybe that’s what I loved about the dresses, inverting that … It was like holding a finger up to what an Australian male is.”
But he also sees the dresses as freedom of expression, a nod to that raucous, humour-filled cultural phenomenon of Australian men taking a brief hiatus from the armour of their masculinity to don dresses for end-of-school celebrations or end-of-footy-season Mad Monday. “There’s something that really intrigues me about Australian men: you have that duality of the alpha male and the feminine.” He was amazed, too, at how much his gang enjoyed wearing the frocks. “When they walked around, it didn’t change their walk. The dresses were just another thing they wore with their boots and they just got on a horse and started riding off.”
Earlier, in the catering tent, I’d talked to Sean Keenan, who plays Joe Byrne, about the dresses. “It’s strange when you put on a dress, a long, flowing, lacy dress,” he says, laughing. “There’s a weird feeling of power that comes from it.” Really? “Yeah, because as men we put on our boots, leather belts and hats, and there is armour in that. You are kind of putting on a face. And then to put on a dress and carry it with confidence and go, ‘I can wear this. It’s about how I channel myself through this.’ ” He stops and thinks. “It’s freeing. Really freeing. And it’s also saying, ‘I don’t give a f… what you think about me. You can’t hurt me with any of your ideas about this being wrong because I have owned it.’ ”
Kurzel filmed in the Winton Wetlands and across many regional Victorian locations, including to the north of Melbourne at Lake Mountain, Kallista and Marysville (in the snow) and at Clunes, in the state’s west. But at the Winton Wetlands, they were deep in Kelly Country, not far from the old Kelly home at Greta and also Glenrowan, where Ned and the gang wore, for the first and last time, their dramatic suits of armour in a final shoot-out with police. There were pictures of Kelly everywhere, Kurzel says, in the hotel, the deli. “It was a theme park of Ned.”
As Kurzel toured the area, he was struck by how we have scattered the Kelly relics far and wide: as if we can’t bear to consider him whole. His armour is held at State Library Victoria, one death mask is at the Old Melbourne Gaol, another is at the National Portrait Gallery (his skull is still missing). And just south of the wetlands, the Benalla Costume and Kelly Museum holds Kelly’s bloodstained green sash, a present from the Shelton family after 10-year-old Ned saved their son from drowning in a creek. Kelly was wearing it under his armour when he was captured by police at Glenrowan, aged 25. “We haven’t been able to create a space where we feel comfortable to be able to go, ‘Here’s Ned,’ ” he says. “It is all broken up in different parts.”
It’s odd, because we seem happy to have Ned in the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony or use his image to sell everything from watering guns to certified-vegan beard balm. Around the wine region near Winton, Kurzel even spotted Ned on a highway sign raising a glass of wine. “But we can’t really seem to have an intelligent, serious conversation about his place and his identity in all of this,” says Kurzel. “We seem to have this strange, awkward relationship with him, and not an honest one.”
We can’t seem to have an intelligent conversation about Kelly’s place and identity … We seem to have this strange, awkward relationship with him, and not an honest one.
The director, who has spent a lot of time thinking about why the Kelly legend stalks the national psyche like no other, makes the point that perhaps white Australians don’t want to look past him, to the dispossession of Indigenous Australians and their ancient stewardship of the land. “It’s always been interesting to me why we get so hung up about our history being this man and how we work so hard to define it in this man, in a way that is favourable or not,” says Kurzel. “He was a 25-year-old guy. But what about the unbelievable history that came before settlement?”
These are good points, but I’m not sure Kurzel’s film makes us question why we have become a nation of Nedophiles. Ultimately, it’s a film based on a book. And when it comes to the question of Kelly as hero or villain – a debate that raged even when he was alive – Carey’s book uses the hero template. Only at the end of the book does Carey have Thomas Curnow – the crippled school teacher who, in real life, heroically alerted police to Kelly’s plot to derail their train – question the myth. “What is it about we Australians, eh?” Curnow asks. “What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?”
Carey, who provided feedback on the script, says he relied heavily on the books of Ian Jones, a TV writer who, for decades, became one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the Kelly-as-great-man idea. Jones died last year. Carey’s Kelly is ultimately a sympathetic hero, a kid who – after saving the drowning boy – could have done anything, but was dragged back again and again to the criminal ways of his much-loved widowed mother and extended clan. Eventually, goaded by the police who hounded him, he succumbed to his fate like a spent swimmer in a rip. That’s the “true” history that many Australians believe.
But Carey’s book was released in 2000 and since then, particularly in the past few years, the other side of the Kelly story – a corrective, if you like – has bubbled up in a swag of books and academic papers. Historians have taken some of the original reference material and recast the Kelly myth, questioning our basic truths. And the emerging nuance, it turns out, is more interesting than the old Kelly-as-hero trope.
By the time I’m ready to watch True History, I’m not feeling particularly good about Ned Kelly. When I visited the film set last year I knew only the vague outlines of the Kelly legend: the famous helmet; police dying at Stringybark Creek. He was a sort of Australian Robin Hood. Now, after falling down several rabbit holes and reading the new evidence, I’ve come to dislike Kelly.
It’s hard to look past the cold-blooded murder of police and the premeditated plan to kill 23 people on a train in June 1880. His threats of “wholesale and retail slaughter” and scattering “blood and brains like rain” would probably land him on a terrorist watch list today. Indeed the Jerilderie Letter, while in parts exquisitely written (or rather, dictated to Joe Byrne), has echoes of the self-centred, obsessive, rage-filled screeds posted online before mass shooters leave their screens to kill innocent people. If he was alive today, one suspects Kelly might have been a shade Trumpian on Twitter.
The recent Kelly book Black Snake obviously has a point of view – it believes Kelly is not worthy of worship – but it convincingly deconstructs the idea that the bushranger was some sort of warrior against the squatter class. Ned Kelly, Kennedy and Looby’s book points out, never followed through on the paperwork for his own slice of crown land. He was more interested in earning a quid through cattle-rustling and horse-thieving. The book notes Kelly’s “shocking upbringing” but its assessment of the historical record finds Ned and his mob far from chivalrous Robin Hood types. “They made crude remarks to women to prompt a reaction, and derided those more downtrodden than themselves. They committed attacks on Chinese migrants and Indigenous Australians at their whim.”
The book references a report in The Argus, around the time of the Stringybark Creek murders, of the gang shooting a “native bear” or koala. For me, this is the final straw. What sort of hard-hearted man shoots a koala?
Monash University adjunct historian Stuart Dawson has also put a different spin on things. His recent research redeems the loathed Constable Fitzpatrick – played in the film with incredible magnetism by Nicholas Hoult – and demolishes Jones’ widely accepted theory that Kelly wanted to establish a republic in north-east Victoria. Yet another Dawson paper lays out Kelly’s last moments on the gallows, concluding his final words were not “Such is life”. The reporters at Kelly’s hanging were out of earshot and relied on officials, resulting in several versions. The most detailed newspaper account reported him as saying, “Ah well, I suppose.” Another reported the quote as, “Ah well, I suppose it has come to this.” Only one journalist, perhaps using some poetic licence, reported the words as the more tattoo-able “Such is life”. (A small but fascinating digression: in 2011, forensic pathologist Roger Byard found dead men with “Such is life” tattoos were nearly eight times more likely to have been murdered than corpses with no Kelly tattoos.)
I emerge from this myth-busting rabbit hole and finally get to watch True History. The film’s first half, in which the bunion-footed Harry Power mentors Ned as a child, is the most powerful (one Canadian reviewer described 12-year-old actor Orlando Schwerdt’s young Ned as “one of the greatest child performances projected on screen”). The second half is like when you come in after a big night and turn on Rage to find a string of mind-bendingly beautiful video clips. Everything is wonderfully dark and brooding, if a bit stop-start and disconnected. But the film’s climactic Glenrowan scene – with MacKay muscle-ripped and manic, like a bloodthirsty Iggy Pop – is a triumph. Kurzel gradually, over the film’s course, narrows the shot so you end up sharing Kelly’s fevered and crazed claustrophobia as he peers from the post-box slot of his helmet. It was only later that I discovered Kurzel felt some kinship with Kelly at Glenrowan: at this point in filming, he was in his own “fever dream”.
It’s a late October day at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, essentially a car park full of enormous filmmaking sheds. I follow Peppe, Kurzel’s assistant, up some stairs, past the poster about workplace harassment. I’m to wait here for Kurzel in an almost empty grey-toned office scattered with fruit bowls, Coke cans and whiteboards. It’s 7pm.
Eventually Kurzel joins me, only 10 minutes late. He seems the same as when I last interviewed him: kind, intense, a little rumpled. At one point in our interview his phone rings. “Sorry, it’s Essie.” (He lets it go through to voicemail, but is a little distracted as it rings out. The couple have been together since Kurzel was 21. He’s 45 now, she’s 49. They live in Hobart. “I think she’s amazing,” he told me in our first interview.)
In September, the film had premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to largely good reviews (in a red-carpet interview, Carey described the film as intelligent, reckless and brave: “I said to the producer: ‘I am not going to like this film, I don’t have to like it.’ And then we saw it … and my wife and I just loved it.”) But, to Kurzel, the premiere probably seems a lifetime ago. Tomorrow, filming starts on his next big project: the first two episodes of Shantaram, the Apple TV series starring Charlie Hunnam and Richard Roxburgh based on Gregory David Roberts’ bestselling 2003 novel.
Going into the Shantaram shoot, he says he feels “unbelievably relaxed”. He didn’t feel like that with True History, he adds. Making all films, he says, is like being in a “fever dream”, but this was particularly so with the Kelly film because of his fraught experience with Assassin’s Creed and the loss of his sense of self. “I felt there was like an adrenalin in me. I’m not saying I haven’t got adrenalin now, going into this shoot, but it’s just that I’m at peace with having got all the creative frustration out.
“I feel that in [directing the] film, there was a bit of Ned in me, you know, as we got towards Glenrowan. There was a little bit of me standing next to George … about to put my armour on as well.” He’s chuckling now, able to take the piss, but the whole thing sounds intense.
And who, I ask, are the police in this metaphor? Who is the enemy? “Probably me,” he says, and we laugh. The enemy is so often within.
Melissa Fyfe is feature writer with Good Weekend magazine. Her special interests are federal and state politics, government policy, social justice and the environment. Melissa joined Good Weekend after a stint as deputy editor of The Sunday Age and, before that, she was part of The Age investigations unit.