True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)
Directed by Justin Kurzel. Screenplay by Shaun Grant, based on the novel by Peter Carey.
Starring George MacKay, Ben Corbett, Orlando Schwerdt, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis, Claudia Karvan, Russell Crowe, Jack Charles, Sean Keenan, Nicholas Hoult, Earl Cave, Marlon Williams, Jillian Nguyen, & Thomasin McKenzie.
Rated R / 124 minutes
Biography / Crime / Drama
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers
Justin Kurzel’s been a favourite filmmaker of mine since his grim 2011 feature debut, Snowtown (a.k.a The Snowtown Murders), based on the heinous crimes of Australian serial killer John Bunting. He proved fast that tackling taboo subjects, specifically ones pertaining to Australian history, was going to be his strong suit. While Macbeth (excellent) and Assassin’s Creed (not excellent but fun) are much larger Hollywood-like productions, Snowtown, the “Boner McPharlin’s Moll” segment in The Turning, and now True History of the Kelly Gang illustrate that Kurzel’s biggest thematic interests lie closer to home than anywhere else.
The film is a fantastic adaptation of Peter Carey’s groundbreaking novel, True History of the Kelly Gang. Shaun Grant’s (Mindhunter, Berlin Syndrome) screenplay retains much of Carey’s intent in that the story is, at its core, not about telling a true story so much as it is about using the mythological status of Ned Kelly in the collective Australian consciousness to confront issues of masculinity and nationalism. Here, Kelly transforms from a dangerous Irishman fighting British oppression in the Outback to a crossdressing folk hero attempting to, at once, honour his father and just as forcefully break away from his father’s memory.
Kurzel’s stylish telling of Kelly’s story, through Carey’s anti-colonialist lens, gets to the heart of why masculinity and nationalism are so intertwined, and how they do damage to men, women, and an entire nation. Many have already baulked at the fast-and-loose approach to history here, though many of those same critics seem to not fully understand the purpose of Carey’s novel in the first place. Author Heather Smyth wrote an article about Carey’s novel in which she states that Australian nationalism is “dominated by images of male activities that are simultaneously hypermasculine and implicitly heterosexual.” Kurzel channels the best of Carey to deconstruct said hypermasculinity and the heteronormativity pervading nationalist discourse in Australia.
“You go out there & be a big man.
You show the world.”
Issues of class and gender are all over the film, right from the first moment we see young Ned peering through a crack in the shed to see Captain O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) getting orally serviced by his mother, Ellen (Essie Davis). Class disparity between the English and Irish convicts— taken forcibly to what was then a British colony— is obvious in the way Ellen trades sexual favours to gain slight economic help from O’Neil. The officer views the sparse Victorian landscape as only “dirt and disappointment,” though does nothing but exploit Ellen, as well as her husband Red (Ben Corbett), with no real intent on offering any genuine help. Just as disturbing is the “dancing fucking monkey” scene when we witness Ned and another Irishman fight each other for bourgeois entertainment in a fancy house, similar to the way black men fought for the pleasure of white slave owners in the Antebellum South— depicted here in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained. Kurzel’s film focuses on how Irish men and women alike were exploited at the hands of the English.
Gendered exploitation rears its head at various moments throughout, and we continually see how gender plays into it. Ellen’s sexual extortion at the hands of Cpt. O’Neil is compounded by his telling young Ned of seeing Red in women’s clothing, which sends the boy on a hypermasculine tailspin ultimately lasting his entire life. Ellen herself is a rebellious figure, not only as a woman but as an Irishwoman. She refuses Ned’s education, unwilling to take handouts from the English. Her exploitation runs so deep she has ingrained bourgeois attitudes about “blood and breeding” which she tells Ned is what matters most of all.
She eventually brings highway robber and bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) into their home. One night, Harry sings “Constable Cunt”— an anti-police anthem decidedly rooted in gender, as the world ‘constable’ gets pronounced ‘cunt stubble’ (a term long used by the Irish), simultaneously denigrating English authority and linking it to the female anatomy. Power’s song lingers with Ned until the end of the young man’s life. A pivotal late scene sees Ned holding his gun in the face of a British officer, singing the lyrics Harry once sang across the dinner table. This speaks to how the Irish in Australia, from an early age, had to learn hard lessons about their existence, and, more importantly, how their existence was predicated upon British oppression. Ellen and Harry each play a major role in shaping how Ned sees the world, offering extremely gendered views of the world that were as detrimental to learn as they were necessary.
Ellen and Harry’s influence on Ned has huge ramifications for his sense of self and conception of masculinity. Young Ned clashes with his father over the title “man of the house” when he’s the one to bring home meat for the family, figuratively emasculating Red. Ellen makes a scene at the dinner table, bolstering the idea Red is not a man because he wasn’t able to bring home enough food for the family. This leads to Red being arrested by Cpt. O’Neil for murdering a cow belonging to a farmer, and because he’s unwilling to admit it was his son who’d fed the family he’s carted off to a cell where he remains until his death. This incident leaves Ned with lifelong guilt, as well as many questions about what actually constitutes manhood. Ned’s relationship to Red is complicated most by Cpt. O’Neil’s revelation about the red frock and the way the film depicts Red as feminised. The feminisation is particularly noticeable in the first few scenes with Cpt. O’Neil, where we see Red in shots holding his baby— the traditional binaries of gender are at play here, showing Red as maternal, whereas Ellen becomes much more a patriarch than a matriarch as the story progresses.
Ned’s masculinity being shaped by Ellen offers insight into how women can feed into toxic masculine ideals. After Red dies, Ellen gives her husband’s boots to Ned, symbolic of the boy having to step into his father’s shoes literally. The mother continually charges her son with being all her husband was not, always implying Red’s supposed lack of manhood. Ned’s upbringing entrenched in heteronormativity is echoed when he says: “I am a widow‘s son.” Widow’s son is a term predicated on maleness— widow defines a woman by a man, and being a widow’s son is then to be a man shaped by a mother’s loss of her husband. Ned’s a man forever haunted by the ghost of his father by way of his mother, further confusing how he understands masculinity and his own status as a man.
Just as much as Ellen determines the way Ned conceives masculinity, Harry plays a large role in constructing the toxic masculine ideals the boy takes with him into adulthood. When Harry first brings Ned along with him they come across a criminal strapped to a tree with a sign explaining he stole another man’s livelihood. The price for the other man’s livelihood is the criminal’s manhood: his scrotum’s been cut off and stuffed in his mouth. This scene depicts manhood as related to sexual identity— financial manhood as livelihood equates to the loss of a physical manhood— with the criminal further emasculated by having a piece of his own physical masculine body stuffed in his dead mouth. Phallic problems return when Harry later brings Ned up to an inn’s room where they find Cpt. O’Neil in bed with a sex worker. Harry urges Ned to “shoot his cock off” as retribution for what the officer did to the boy’s family, having exploited Ellen, as well as emasculating and capturing Red. Harry goes so far as to call the feminised Red “a coward.” This is perhaps the most hypermasculine moment of the film, and even young Ned rejects it, nearly shooting Harry before running back home to his mother. Sadly, Ned’s unable to wholly reject this world because even his mother has become entrenched in its values, incapable of escaping his tragic trajectory.
True History of the Kelly Gang is a Gothic Western that confronts the myth of Ned Kelly just as much as Australian masculinity as a whole. Specifically in this confrontation of myth we see how nationalism gets intertwined with harmful ideas of hegemonic masculinity, or, as Heather Smyth states in her article about Carey’s novel, how “nationalism is gendered and sexualized.” Convict society and bush mateship in the Outback led to an environment that was often womanless, where men spent all their time together. This environment of homosociality was a paradox: a space that held erotic potential and one characterised by intense homophobia. We see this when Cpt. O’Neil shows disdain for Red’s frock, and even in Ned himself as a boy. Most of the homophobic fear comes from the dress(es), seen again later when Ned returns home to find his brother Dan (Earl Cave) donning a dress. Kurzel likewise depicts the paradox of Outback homosociality by showing erotic potential in Ned’s relationship with Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan). Ned and Joe are seen as mates, but they’re suggested as much more, from their playful, touchy-feely way of talking to their sleeping together in the same bed.
One very vivid way Kurzel depicts homophobia is through Red’s frock as a Gothic secret of gender and sexuality, entombed in a stack of rocks. Ned and his brothers cannot deal with Red’s dress, so they construct their own myth: the Sons of Sieve. This is where toxic masculinity fuses with nationalism, as the Kelly Gang adopt fiction related to their Irish roots as a method of coping with revelations about their father’s manhood. Smyth’s article does a fantastic job of tracing the Sons of Sieve, originally appearing in Carey’s novel, back to “agrarian secret societies” active in 18th and 19th-century Ireland and Wales, such as the Whiteboys. Groups like the Whiteboys adopted crossdressing as an act of rebellion due to the English colonial view of the Irish woman as dangerous, barbarous, and pestiferous, not to mention politically subversive. The British Empire viewed Irish women as a challenge to colonial order because they challenged patriarchal order as a whole. And so men dressing as women to engage in violent protest was a way of honouring the role of Irish women, presenting themselves as sons of the mother and “the mother herself“— this fits with Ned’s relationship to Ellen, seeing her as more powerful than his father. The direct connection to the Kelly Gang comes from the Whiteboys expressing allegiance to Sieve from Irish mythology and calling themselves Queen Sieve’s Outlaw Children, which we see in the film when Ned and his cohorts dub themselves Sons of Sieve.
Red’s Gothic dress further adds to themes of colonialism/nationalism and gender because its hiding potentially connects to Aboriginal stone arrangement. Red conceals the secret relating to his gender and sexuality in a pile of stones that visually connects to Aboriginal practises which existed before colonialism ravaged Australia, and before the British banished countless Irish convicts to the Outback. What’s especially compelling to note is the Kelly family lived in Victoria— well-known stone arrangements are found in Victoria, such as Wurdi Youang which marks positions of the setting sun at the equinoxes and solstices. Red’s stone arrangement hiding his crossdressing secret is a site of convergence where nationalism and gender/sexuality come together in a Gothic symbol that crystallises so much of what Ned’s story represents.
“For a myth is more profitable than a man”
The profitable myth of Ned Kelly is profitable in that it has allowed a nationalist discourse to emerge around his violent hypermasculine legacy. Ned is symbolic of colonial Australia’s foundation on masculine imagery like the bushranger. Carey’s novel exposed, as Heather Smyth puts it, the ways in which “Australian popular nationalism demonstrates the effort of establishing heteronormativity in its attempt to dislodge homosociality from homosexuality.” Kurzel’s adaptation goes a few steps further to emphasise the novel’s subversive qualities through Red’s dress and its Gothic ramifications on Ned’s ideas about masculinity, as well as the obvious queer relationship Ned has with Byrne and how it brings up the paradoxes of a homosocial Outback.
Ned’s statement “I don‘t right know what I am” is itself an allegory for a confused hypermasculine nationalism that dominates Australian culture. The myths constructed out of Kelly’s violent manhood extend deep into the colonial culture of Australia and continue to affect all genders to this day. The whole world still has so many problems with LGBTQ people. Although Australia has a particularly troubled history with queer people, such as the numerous gay murders in Bondi, recently depicted in a miniseries called Deep Water and a similarly titled documentary, which all but became a hetero-male sport. True History of the Kelly Gang is emphatically queer, and in its queerness adds to a larger conversation concerning Australian culture. Kurzel doubling down on Carey’s already excellent subversive work is desperately needed in today’s pop culture landscape as we still grapple with the seemingly endless damaging shackles of heteronormativity.
Carey, Peter. True History of the Kelly Gang. Vintage Canada, 2002.
Smyth, Heather. “Mollies Down Under: Cross-Dressing and Australian Masculinity in Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2009); pp. 185-214. <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/262458>