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‘The True Story of Ned Kelly’: Criminal or Freedom Fighter?

Chris Sullivan reviews an adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel that explores the boundary between banditry and rebellion.

‘The True Story of Ned Kelly’
Criminal or
Freedom Fighter?

Chris Sullivan reviews an adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel that explores the boundary between banditry and rebellion.

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I’ve always been intrigued by Australian folk outlaw Ned Kelly. Especially as he rode into battle bedecked in crudely fashioned wrought iron armour with something reminiscent of a bucket on his head. I particularly enjoyed Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning tome: The True Story of the Kelly Gang, and I was was very gratified to see that his monumental work had been adapted to the screen. I wasn’t disappointed. 

Directed by Australian Justin Kurzel, the picture takes us from the celebrated bushranger’s boyhood through to his inevitable conclusion, with an almost punk rock zeal. The film is at once realistic and sparse, intense and hallucinatory and violent and bloody. It hardly stops to take a breather.   

Man and Boy

One of eight offspring, the child Kelly (played by Orlando Schwerdt) didn’t have the best upbringing. He had a cross-dressing drunken dad, a transported Irish convict, and a foul-mouthed Irish misanthropic mother (played by Essie Davis) who sold him to the murdering, brigand, Harry Power (superbly played by Russell Crowe). It is Power who introduced the young Kelly to a criminal lifestyle, cold-blooded murder, robbery and the life of Reilly.

The film is divided into three chapters that chart Kelly’s descent or ascent into the fabled outlaw. These are “Boy”, “Man”, and “Monitor” — the latter being the name of an iron warship that although small, carried disproportionately large guns and gave Kelly the idea for his famous head to waist bulletproof armour. 

Into Part Two, George Mackay — who acted brilliantly in 1917 and here proves himself to be one of the UK’s finest acting talents — step in with a bruising, totally believable performance as the outlaw.  His red hair is reminiscent of a skinhead girl, mullet included. His eyes bulge with ferocity and often shirtless even in the snow now is all bone and muscle, and wound like a spring. He seems ready to explode at any moment to avenge the wrongs done to his Irish immigrant class by the corrosive British Imperialist forces and the English squattocracy who govern the land. Others have played Kelly, including Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, but none have delivered as convincing a performance as Mackay.

Others have played Kelly, including Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, but none have delivered as convincing a performance as Mackay.

In real life, Kelly did two terms in prison as a teenager, one for three formative years from aged 17 to 20, which might explain his dramatic acceleration into the man he became. After his prison spell, in real life, Kelly joined the Greta Mob who, known for rustling, were a strange old bunch of gun-toting youngsters.

He then fell in with the disreputable, yet sophisticated, Constable Fitzpatrick, very well played by Nicholas Hoult, who was a habitué of brothels, a self-proclaimed cad and reprobate drug user. This association didn’t stop Fitzpatrick from riding into the Kelly homestead on 15th April 1878, to arrest Ned’s brother Dan.

Apparently drunk, he made advances towards Ned’s younger sister and was shot in the wrist by Dan. The mother Ellen hit him over the head with a shovel knocking him unconscious. She received three years hard labour for her part in the attempted murder and another three on top — an astonishingly harsh sentence for a mother of eight. Outraged by this heartless severity, Ned Kelly went off on a rampage off to either ruin or stardom depending on one’s point of view.

Murder, Robbery and Local Hero

 A few months later, Kelly’s gang haad murdered three of the four police officers.  The Government of Victoria proclaimed them outlaws and slapped a £500 dead or alive reward on their heads. The Government threated anyone who helped the fugitives with “imprisonment with or without hard labour for such period not exceeding fifteen years.”

Twenty-three sympathisers were subsequently imprisoned, causing public outcry and support for Kelly, who was now was fast becoming a local hero.  On the run for two years, he robbed banks, attacked police stations and generally caused havoc.  He attacked the bank at Jerliderie and burned three or four bankbooks containing mortgage documents, in an effort to erase the debts and create losses for the banks.

After Jerliderie, Kelly composed a letter outlining the injustices his kind had suffered at the hands of the rotten establishment and the police. He had it delivered to a local newspaper for printing. In it, he promised  “an escalating promise of revenge and retribution”, invokes “a mythical tradition of Irish rebellion” against what he calls “the tyrannism of the English yoke.”

He also claimed self-defence for the killing of the policemen, outlined examples of police corruption and called them “a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or English landlords.” Kelly also called for justice for his family and for other poor Irish families who had settled in the northeast of Victoria and outlines the brutality suffered by Irish prisoners while in prison.

 With this one letter, Kelly turned from criminal into folk-hero – loved by the people and despised by the powers that be.

And there’s the rub. Just who decides who is the criminal and who is the freedom fighter?

Usually, it’s the victors. I am sure had the Germans succeeded in holding onto France after World War Two, the Resistance would have been described as outlaws. In the Great Depression, John Dillinger was considered Public Enemy Number one but because he robbed the very banks that were cruelly foreclosing on beleaguered farmers, who had fallen behind on their payments after the cruel and repeated dust storms, he was seen as a hero by many.

Back during the Vietnamese War, the USA dubbed Ho Chi Minh and his gang Communist renegades, but looking back at the injustices heaped on his countrymen by the US, the opposite is true. It’s also true of indigenous American tribes, pirates of the Caribbean, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, Nelson Mandela, Qui Jin, Tecumseh, Margarita Neri and Gandhi. 

This reality turns the whole ides of history upside down as what is history but his or her story. — ‘He’ often being the victor who used violence, torture and famine to oppress. Ned Kelly was Australia’s most notorious outlaw of all time, who still divides opinion. Too many Australians, he is the country’s all-time folk hero, while others consider him a homicidal felon.

Whatever your opinion, this is a fine motion picture.

The True Story of Ned Kelly is in cinemas now


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