Australia’s answer to Robin Hood or Jesse James, Ned Kelly has had almost as many screen depictions as that pair down the years. There’s been the silent one (1906’s ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’), the serious one (‘Ned Kelly’ with Heath Ledger), the funny one (‘Ned’) and the accidentally funny one (‘Ned Kelly’ with Mick Jagger). Now comes the trippy, frustrating one.
Director Justin Kurzel looks to coax an origin story of national identity from Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel. As in his brilliant ‘Snowtown’, Kurzel is a master of slow-brewing tensions. Early on, this edge stems from Kelly’s formidable mum (Essie Davis, superb) and a young Ned facing off against a British sergeant; later, it’s Nicholas Hoult’s odious constable and George McKay’s grown-up Ned. A gleeful Russell Crowe makes off with the middle bit as a highwayman who shows Ned the ropes.
It’s all heading somewhere special as Kelly muses on masculinity and colonialism, but then coherence gives way to flashy visuals and bursts of expressionistic violence. A nocturnal shootout is strobed like a rock gig, but all the showiness blunts the film’s thinky edge. The climax is a punky, Peckinpah-like splurge that jettisons the emotion and power in a hail of lead.