Soon after it came out, I remember reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and being blown away by it. It was dark and mystical and had thematic overtones worthy of Shakespeare. It was lyrical too and gorgeous in parts when the language would gallop away in the eyes and words of one of the characters. As an Australian I was affected by this – it’s a very Australian story and, as Carey told it, something quintessential to the Australian experience way beyond the oft-told and fabled tale of a bushranger. There was something in this that was about us.
I remember getting into a discussion about the book, and the story of Ned Kelly, with some NYT readers in the book review comments. They were intrigued by the story and, carried away perhaps, I recall saying that as a settled nation, we had a short history, but this was like one of our sustaining myths. It’s a grand story too, the Jerilderie letter with its evocative language, and the boldness to seek insurrection by derailing a train and taking on the troopers. Then there’s his suit of armour, so iconic now that Nolan painted a whole series using it. Every Australian my age knows the story pretty much, but I wonder if it’s more vivid here in Victoria, where it all happened.
In the years since there’s been some revisionist accounting of what happened, pointing out that in fact, Ned Kelly was a cop killer. He was, but the story has though mythical elements that make it so much more than a simple crime story. And when Carey wrote his book, it was those elements he drew upon.
When I heard a while back that they were making a movie of the book, I was both excited and concerned. My concern was not so much that it wouldn’t live up to the book, but rather that it would be different from the book.
There was a Ned Kelly movie made earlier this century with Heath Ledger, based on the book by Robert Drewe, Our Sunshine. That’s a fine book too, and it draws the story of the Kelly gang exuberantly as if they were boys to men, possessed of bountiful talent and high spirits. The language shone with life and buoyancy, and the title was well made. Yet in my memory, the movie is gloomy and dirty and muddy and filled with a sense of doom – as if the story was adopted, but none of the sense around it. I won’t watch it again.
This morning I read a preview of the new movie, and it sounds boldly made and cleverly put together, and by a director who seems to have understood the essence of the tale. I haven’t seen it, but I read that Peter Carey liked it and that’s a great vote of approval. I can’t wait to see it because I know it will make me think.