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Bonk, go to horny gaol: The Australia thread

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# Dressed to kill: Justin Kurzel’s Ned Kelly film explores the masculinity behind the mask

Australia’s fascination for its most notorious bushranger shows no sign of fading. But the Kelly Gang in frocks? That’ll test all our assumptions.

It’s an otherwise ordinary night at The Gasometer, a thriving music venue in one of Melbourne’s grand old inner-city pubs. The punters mill about, nursing pots of beer, waiting for the bands to begin. When they do, a mysterious Australian punk outfit takes to the small stage. They call themselves Fleshlight. No one has heard of them. Indeed, the audience has no idea this is not actually a true band but a bunch of guys famous for other things.

Look closely and you might recognise the vaguely familiar faces. The pale-skinned young man with long dark hair and a striking resemblance to Nick Cave? That’s his son, Earl. The blond guy with the feline face: was he in Puberty Blues and Glitch? That’s Australian actor Sean Keenan. And the sinewy one in the white négligée who reminds you of Heath Ledger? That’s rising star George MacKay, a British actor whose credits include Captain Fantastic , alongside Viggo Mortensen.

The band’s guitar thrashing and punk strutting is infectious; the crowd swells to about 350. A dark-bearded bear of a man slips into the back of the room. It’s Justin Kurzel, who directed the acclaimed 2011 feature Snowtown . He knows these four young men (the fourth is first-time actor Louis Hewison) because right now, he’s their boss. And this whole exercise – making his actors come up with a song list and play a gig in less than three weeks – is his idea of a bonding exercise. Tonight, Kurzel is in the gang-creating business for his “passion project”, True History of the Kelly Gang , based on Peter Carey’s prize-winning novel of the same name, which will be in cinemas from January 9 and on Stan from Australia Day. Up there on stage is Kurzel’s Kelly Gang: MacKay as the iconic outlaw Ned, Cave as his brother Dan, Keenan as Ned’s best mate, Joe Byrne, and Hewison as gang member Steve Hart.

Kurzel is so impressed by the songs that night that he will use two in the film. Before all that, he has to see if his little experiment works. When the gang comes off stage, Kurzel watches them carefully: they lean on each other, light each other’s cigarettes, buy each other drinks. It works. On set, the four become so tight-knit that everyone else, particularly the actors playing the hated policemen, become outsiders. (Kurzel says Russell Crowe, who plays the wily old bushranger Harry Power, shouted the young actors a bonding trip to a shooting range, but noted they’d already formed a strong pack mentality.)

This Gasometer gig is just one notable chapter in the making of this Ned Kelly film. The film had to be reimagined on half its original budget after its first financing deal fell through (Kurzel could not afford the cops at the Glenrowan siege, or the train the Kelly Gang attempted to derail). Kurzel’s wife, Essie Davis – who is wonderful as Ned’s mother, Ellen – broke a rib during filming. Then, one eerie night in Victoria’s Winton Wetlands, Kurzel thought the set had been visited by ghosts. And even before the film was finished, it was being slammed for historical inaccuracy.

“Films about Ned and his myth just keep getting sillier,” wrote Doug Morrissey, who did his PhD on the gang and is the author of several Kelly books, in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald . There’s plenty in this film to outrage Kelly devotees. For starters, Kurzel’s Kelly has no beard. Even more controversially, Kurzel often puts the gang in dresses. But, as I discover on my own journey into the Kelly myth – on which I completely change my mind about Australia’s most famous bushranger – the decision to put the gang in frocks isn’t as crazy as it first seems.

About an hour’s drive north of Melbourne , at a place called Monegeetta, there’s an Italianate mansion in a state of elegant decay. Mintaro, completed in 1881, the year after Ned Kelly was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol, is a grand home that has the occasional weed growing from its ornate cornices. The former owner dumped cars in its once-manicured grounds. But on this August day, the cars are gone and a swarm of film crew in black puffer jackets has taken over. Galahs watch the industrious to-and-fro from Mintaro’s scraggly old pines.

In the catering tent near the entrance gate, the film’s star, George MacKay, is ready for his porridge (it’s 2pm, but everyone was shooting until midnight last night). He asks a crew member politely for his breakfast. MacKay – whose first role, aged nine, was in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 version of Peter Pan – tells me the whole True History experience has been “kind of massive”. It’s not just the pop-up band experiment. He’s learnt how to chop wood, build a fence and ride a horse, too. And the actor, who grew up in London, has done a deep dive into the national culture of his Australian father, Paul MacKay. “I feel so honoured to do this, but not necessarily because of the guys who have done it before,” he says, when I ask him if he feels the weight of a role played previously by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. “I’m just trying to treat it as its own thing. Not a canon of Neds.”

Today they’re filming a scene inside Mintaro – which is, among other things, a brothel in the film – as well as using some of its rustic wooden outbuildings. As the crew graze the buffet, a producer presents the day’s schedule and declares that filming will include a Shetland pony inside the mansion, a baby and gunfire. (What could possibly go wrong?)

I head down Mintaro’s driveway, passing two men deep in conversation. I later realise they are Kurzel, hunkered against the cold in his beanie, and Hal Vogel, one of his producers. In 2011, Vogel, a British producer, was visiting Peter Carey’s agent in London. Irish film director Neil Jordan had only recently relinquished the rights to True History and now they were available. “Everybody said, ‘That’s just a terrible idea. Nobody is going to give you money to make another Ned Kelly film,’ ” Vogel tells me a little while later, outside Mintaro.

The people who said that to Vogel do have a point: how many Ned Kelly films does the world need? There are nearly a dozen now, including the world’s first feature film in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang ; a 1970 effort with Mick Jagger as Ned that its director, Tony Richardson, described as “stillborn”; and a crowd-funded short film, Stringybark , released earlier this year. And when Vogel was considering the rights to True Histor y, only eight years had elapsed since Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly , starring Ledger, which had been released to tepid reviews.

But Vogel had seen Kurzel’s Snowtown – “an incredibly exciting piece of cinema” – and thought the next telling of Ned Kelly would work in the director’s hands. “It would be a bolder, darker version of the story,” he says. And with this package – Carey’s book, plus Kurzel as director – Vogel locked in the film’s original finance deal from an American investor (along with Screen Australia and Film Victoria). After that fell through, French distributor Memento Films joined the two Australian funding bodies with a slashed budget.

Kurzel agreed to direct the film, but had moved with his family – Davis and two daughters – to London, where he was directing a film version of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, which was released in 2015. His next film brought him, as Shakespeare’s witches would say, a lot of double, double toil and trouble. Assassin’s Creed , based on the popular video game, was a hell-broth of competing agendas, creative differences and, in the end, almost universally bad reviews (“Ridiculous and turgid,” declared critic Simon Abrams).

“When you make something like Assassin’s you’re trying to satisfy many, many voices,” Kurzel tells me later. “I genuinely tried to do that, but in juggling those different voices you lose yourself. It was incredibly frustrating.” By the time Kurzel emerged from that experience, and turned his mind again to True History – his Snowtown collaborator, award-winning screenwriter Shaun Grant, was adapting the book for the screen – it was with an aching, desperate home sickness. He wanted to film in Australia, work with Australians, and capture the Australian landscape. He also needed to find his voice again.

“You know, when I came out of that whole experience [with Assassin ], I sort of sat back and went, ‘Who the f… are you? What have you got? What do you like? What are you prepared to put on the line?’ It was kind of like a fever, like ‘Come on! Why did you start making films in the first place? And why do you want to make this film?’ ”

In his homesickness, he fell in love with True History and “desperately” wanted to follow it through. The director, who was born in Gawler, a small town just outside Adelaide, also wanted to be brave again, to take risks: just like he did when he employed non-actors in Snowtown . He wanted to “push and push and push ideas”. And one of his bravest ideas was the liberal use of dresses – which, on this visit to the film’s set, I’m still far from clear on. To work that out, I need to read Carey’s book.

This article is incredibly long, but it really goes to some interesting places. What do you guys think about it?

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Man the fires in Victoria look to be out of fucking control. An area half the size of Belgium evacuated. Fugg. At least people actually seem to be pissed at the govt regarding their failures on climate change and bushfire preparedness.

That’s a real bummer, man. The official Australian position on climate change is deeply nihilistic.

We have a staggeringly poor level of political discourse but most of the public don’t seem fussed about it. It seems that things are becoming more openly corrupt as well. First world country, third world politics.

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Is there a chance they may become more fussed when their houses burn down and the sky stays red forever? I mean, I’m also from a country of working class conservatives who like to vote against their best interests, but surely there’s a point where these people’s collective consciousness stops cranking Sway by Coal Chamber on repeat and asks for some accountability and forward thinking.

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:scruffy:

At some point a cunt’s got to call a cunt a cunt when he’s acting like a cunt.

I mean, whatever differences we may have I think we have to admit that that’s a great poem.

Reads like lyrics from a Australian version of Stuck Mojo or Propaghandi.

Basically the fires are the only thing that anyone is talking about in Oz. Every other piece of shit policy that the govt was hoping to discuss has been pushed way to the back burner because of how pissed people are. Given that the fire season now apparently never ends, it’s likely that the subject may not leave people’s minds and that community anger may drive more action on fire preparedness, wildlife conservation and climate change even from a conservative govt. I also think that Morrison won’t recover from this politically. He’s been exposed as an incompetent leader and his image as a daggy dad regular Aussie bloke has kind of been destroyed. So I predict PM Dutton within the year.

On Sunday, at about 3pm, the smoke rolled over Auckland (NZ) and the sky went dark and brown. Had to turn the lights on just to read.

As far as new normals go, this one is pretty fucking depressing.

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:scruffy:

The first firefighter to glass Morrison will be the next Governor-General.

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Is he being barracked by his own party, then? Who’ll likely table the no-confidence vote against him?

No one is saying much. Someone on social media pointed out that technically Dutton is the responsible spokesperson for these kind of emergencies but he has remained silent. Presumably, he is spending his time plotting to challenge Morrison for the leadership and therefore first needs to learn how to count.