[The Revolution Will Be Televised] ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ (2019) and the Mythological Bedrock of Rebellion

This Article contains spoilers for True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang (henceforth abbreviated to True History), directed by Justin Kurzel and starring George Mackay, Nicholas Hoult, Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie, is an ahistorical retelling of the life of notorious Aussie outlaw and folk legend, Ned Kelly.

It is a gorgeously radical trip of a film which I cannot recommend more strongly. It is dense with semantics, with more than enough material to satisfy the foreseeable lifetime of this column. For today, however, I would like to focus on the feature which appealed to me most: how True History illuminates the ways shared fiction gives form and mass to rebellion, and how cult mythology acts as the cornerstone to revolt.

Mythology is the operative word here, and it is foundational to oppressed communities because it provides a stronger cultural bedrock than something as weak and flimsy as facts.

“Nothing you are about to see is true.”

Those words, the first of True History, are a thesis statement, casting suspicion over the film to follow. They are instantly rendered suspect by Ned Kelly (George Mackay) in voiceover, swearing on his immortal soul that no word of his tale would be false. This direct contradiction, this discord between author and character, emphasises the one honest-to-god truth in the film: narrative takes pride of place above any notion of epistemic rigour and any attempt to unpick the truth from the fiction is folly.

True History is, at its core, a story about stories. The chosen framing device is Ned writing his life story for the benefit of his daughter, so that she may learn the version of him that he would have her remember: a victim of brutal colonial oppression and valiant warrior against the crown. Not the version told by his British enemies: a scruffy, uncouth, murderous savage that died spluttering at the end of a noose.

Harry Power (Russell Crowe) at the mercy of a young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt), who is pointing a gun to his head.
Harry Power (Russell Crowe) at the mercy of a young Ned Kelly (Orlando Schwerdt). Image courtesy of TheArtsDesk.com

The keeping of journals is a habit imparted upon Ned as a young boy by Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a bushranger who buys Ned as an apprentice. As Power explains:

“When a man leaves this world all that’s left is his story. Write it yourself, don’t let some Englishman write it or he’ll f*** it up and steal the proceeds.”

Their relationship quickly sours but the philosophy sticks. It is also one of the first instances of the film drawing a direct link between the act of living and the act of storytelling, an analogy which would be further cemented through the symbolic representation of ink as blood as the plot progresses.

In True History, stories (ergo lives), are framed in these specific terms – they are not written for profit, nor for broad appeal or contemporary benefit, but instead for posterity. They are written for the purpose of preserving one’s life beyond their corporeal form and connecting with their heirs and offspring via shared legacy.

Legacy is a key factor at play here. For much of True History, Ned speaks of legacy as something to be outran and escaped. Legacy manifests in myriad ways for Ned to process. He is ashamed of his father; a drunken frock-wearing criminal who Ned usurps as the man of the house as a young boy.

The frock is of particular note as Ned’s knowledge of his father dressing in women’s clothes is first relayed to him by a British police Sergeant (Charlie Hunnam). As such, Ned is confused and angry – furious at the Sergeant’s insinuation that his father was employed as a mistress to a wealthy Englishman. Ned finds the frock and sets it alight.

Dan Kelly (Earl Cave) sporting an extravagant frock in a deserted woodland.
Dan Kelly (Earl Cave) sporting an extravagant frock. Image courtesy of TheLoveMagazine.co.uk.

It is not until the frock is reframed through the lens of legacy that Ned comes to understand its significance. Crossdressing, for the Kellys, is the continuation of their legacies as sons of Sieve – fictional Irish rebels who fought their British oppressors wearing women’s clothing because, as Dan Kelly (Earl Cave) says:

“Men are most afraid of what they don’t understand…nothing scares a man like crazy.”

It is not until Ned stops running from his legacy, trying to alter his standing or attempting to broker an uneasy peace with the British that he finally dons the dress, cementing his own legacy and joining his forefathers as a son of Sieve. Clad in black lace and smeared with ink, he and his gang would take their revenge on the crown police in violent defiance of the abuse they had faced.

Legacy and folklore obliterate colonial social order in a very direct way in True History. In the final act, once Ned embraces his history, he and his militia storm the residence of Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), where Ned has him irate at the business end of a double-barrel shotgun. Fitzpatrick, knowing his fate is sealed, takes one last opportunity to belittle the underclass, reminding Ned:

“We’ll always be on the right side of the truth. You’ll always be the Kelly and I’ll always be the copper.”

Unphased, Ned recites, with all the spite he can muster, the Irish folk song Harry Power sang for his family years ago:

“For curiosity, convicted.
Sent to heaven on earth for my sins.
I want to start afresh, and have no regrets
but there’s one in each town who won’t let you forget… He’s a c***, he’s a c***, he’s a constable c***”

In his final moments Fitzpatrick’s badge, status, salary, all counted for nothing when confronted with the repercussions not simply of his own wrongdoings against the Kelly clan, but of all harm brought against the oppressed by the hand of colonial oppressors. Ned’s actions are, by this rebel song, tied inexorably to his legacy and the mythological foundation of his movement.

Whilst it is not the crux of what I set out to discuss, I would be amiss if I failed to mention the fact that the aforementioned wearing of Women’s clothing plays into wider elements of True History that challenge heteronormativity.

Instead of the pure tactical functionality – the anti-colonial shock and awe campaigns of their ancestors – the Kelly gang’s dress wearing takes on a more modern notion of rebellion against rigid gender norms. Combined with the temporally dislocating punk-rock soundtrack and strobe lighting, the story reaches forward into our time and asserts its relevance to all those battling oppressors of all kinds.

Ned Kelly (George Mackay) stands bloodied in his Rorschach-esque dress. Behind him, a building is burning to the ground.
Ned Kelly (George Mackay) stands bloodied in his Rorschach-esque dress. Image courtesy of TheIrishTimes.com

This notion is made clearer in the final scene of the film. In voiceover, Ned writes once again for his daughter:

“My wish for you, my dearest child, is that all the coarse words and cruelty I have related in these pages seem queer and foreign to you. Like some strange tale from an ancient world. But if they do not, and you, like I, have suffered from injustice at the hands of oppressors, remember that you are a Kelly, and that you are loved.”

These words extend solidarity and understanding to oppressed communities everywhere, including them in a long legacy of shared hurt and reminding them that they are the continuation of the rebellion against tyranny.

It is no wonder that the Kelly name lives in infamy to this day. His rebellious spirit continues both to inspire and to enrage. To guide and to terrify. He lives on in music and in cinema, his story retold and embellished countless times since his death in keeping with the great tradition of Irish folklore which inspired him.

True History, often criticised for being anything but, is an exceptionally radical piece of cinema which does an awful job at informing the audience of the true details of Ned Kelly’s life, but the best job yet of recognising his impact.

Header courtesy of abc.net.au