Peter Carey’s writings have been turned into big-screen entertainment with intermittent success; his screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World is something of a secret triumph, even if the wonderfully quirky film itself didn’t reach the mainstream. Laura Jones had more success with her take on Oscar and Lucinda, and Gillian Armstrong’s spare, austere visuals provided a sensitive gloss to the soul-searching individuals at the narrative’s core.
One’s heart sinks, however at the notion of director Justin Kurzel having a go at Carey’s prose; the man behind the lamentable Assassins Creed adaptation and an even duller version of Macbeth would seem like the wrong man for a tricky job, and so it proves. The Ned Kelly story has been told before, notably with Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, and this time around, 1917 star George Mackay takes the lead, by dint of his Australian father. A caption, ‘None of what follows is true,’ recalls Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, but even the fictional elements here are strictly revisionist stuff, with character motivations generally ascribed to sex, impotence and randomness.
A lengthy sequence establishing Kelly’s relationship with his father gives way to a striking introduction of Mackay, physically contorted in front of a Union Jack flag. Charlie Hunnam turns up as a copper, while a bearded Russell Crowe seems to enjoy himself as a writer with a taste for obscene verse. But things often feel different when translated from page to screen, and Kurzel’s film suffers from adhering without much thought to the clichés of the Western genre, with a tough hero, struggling with inner demons and confused sexuality, leading a band of misfits to one last, misguided stand.
The gifted Mackay is probably about as good as he could be in the circumstances, and after a draggy mid-section, the final climax is reasonably compelling as white-hooded figures surround Kelly and his gang in their metallic strong-hold. But Carey’s interest in myth and reality does not survive the translation here; Kelly is just one more wronged maverick seeking oblivion outside of societal norms, and whatever made the book’s blend of reality and myth so potent just writhes around in the dirt and filth here.