Ned Kelly (born in 1854, died on the gallows in 1880) is the ultimate Australian anti-hero. As ubiquitous Down Under as Robin Hood is in the UK or Billy the Kid is in the States, Kelly has a vivid life story, a legendary status, and a long history of cultural representations. Justin Kurzel’s new film, The True History of the Kelly Gang, does not sit passively within the long legacy of Kelly mythology. Instead, it suggests that we’ve reached a point in the myth’s life-cycle that calls for questioning and agitation. In other words, it was the queerest, most hypermasculine depiction of Aussie folk lore I’ve ever seen.

The way that the Kelly gang use the traditional Australian ideals of “mateship” (“You’re my brother”) to both support each other and push each other to violent and angry actions is disturbing precisely because it epitomises a particular strain of virile homosociality. Tipping towards homoeroticism, aggression, and unconditional love, the film’s portrayal of masculinity is vivid and knotty. Most striking is George Mackay’s Kelly. Emphasising the boyishness of Kelly (he was only 25 years old when he was hung on the gallows), this version of Ned is wild and frenetic. 

With the way the story traces Ned’s rise, the film feels more like a bildungsroman than a folktale, complete with the difficult pangs and pains that arise from growing up in poverty and isolation in the bush. However, for all of its youthful punk iconography, my worry is that the film gnaws at something without quite knowing what it wants to do with it. I fear that maybe, rather than being intentionally directionless, the film lost a bit of direction.

There is a full battery of words that I find myself reaching for: coarse, raw, dirty, wild, rough, violent—the list goes on. These risk falling into the slightly hackneyed register of terms used for art house films; slightly too adjacent to the overused “gritty”. So instead, I will speak about the version of Kelly I held walking into the cinema, and the version of Kelly that arose before me on screen. 

In year 5 of primary school, we did a term on the Australian Gold rush of the late 19th century. We played a classroom game where you were assigned characters on the goldfields and tried to seek a fortune. In the second last week of the game, the principal of our school dressed up as a bushranger and “robbed” all our gold. We were delighted – it was one of the stand out moments of the year.

In the year of university I did in Australia, I was in an original Ned Kelly musical. It was filled with folk ballads and pub songs and the sort of baroque pathos of Les Mis. It glorified the Ned Kelly that my primary school principal also represented: traditionally masculine, true blue, and, well, a bit of a hero.

Kurzel’s film knows the crowded legacy within which it is operating. Depictions of the Kelly mythos are omnipresent in Australia, and have a long history on screen. In fact, the history of film itself is born with Kelly: the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register lists the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, as the world’s first full-length narrative feature film. 

Like the fictionalised book by Peter Carey that the film is based on, Kurzels film chooses to sidestep the most popular and well-known elements of the Kelly myth. The famous bank robbery is one very brief component of a larger psychodrama. It eschews the idea of a good bloke Australian lumberjack with a metal helmet and a penchant for robbing banks. These ideas of Kelly all feel “safe”, simply through their repetition and folkloric quality: they are artefacts of a time that is not ours.

In contrast, The True History of the Kelly Gang, with its striking set pieces, becomes a fantasia, defying the genre of “historical film” in order to speak to our current moment. The scene of the metropolitan Australian gentry – all bedecked in elaborate dress and candlelight, watching a semi-nude Kelly bare-knuckle boxing – is electric. Mackay’s performance is nothing short of astounding, with all its boyish, scrappy, sinewy angst. And it’s here, when the film pits the tough rural life of early white Australia against the debauchery of the transplanted British governing class, that the film is at its most compelling.

This British governing class is searingly portrayed by Nicholas Hoult as Constable Fitzpatrick. He has a mild-mannered yet dangerous sort of masculinity. He draws power from being soft-spoken and civil while threatening to kill people. He sits on a lush sofa, completely naked apart from garters, smoking a cigar and conversing casually with Kelly in a 19th century rural Australian brothel. It’s this edge of sordidness, pressed into a form of mannerism and gentility, that is so interesting. He portrays an alternate form of masculinity that draws power from a dangerous edge of surety underneath the politeness and sociability.

In this, The True History of the Kelly Gang gives a more nuanced depiction of “frontier” Australia than is normally seen: it was not just mateship, lawlessness and struggling to survive, there was also a form of decadence that can only arise within the context of huge wealth disparity. Within this framing, the “punk” drive of the film gains credence. At the film’s climax, it shows four scrawny, boyish mates wearing sheer lace dresses, covered in soot and blood, and clutching guns as they fight The System. In moments like this, the film knows that it is iconic. It shows a sort of youthful, harsh masculinity, that has a tang of something almost rabid to it. 

As a result, the film feels fresh and subversive, though it does, at times, become too obvious that this subversion was the whole point. I liked what Kurzel’s film did, I like having seen it, and I like thinking about it — but I find it hard to ascertain whether or not I actually enjoyed watching it. It was tense, relentless, and hyperviolent, which is not my ideal when it comes to enjoyable film experiences. And yet, I will say that since having seen the film, I have found myself desperate to unpack its dense imagery, constantly attempting to pin down what this rich psychodrama means for contemporary Australia and how we think about our past.