How many Ned Kelly movies are too many?

Heath Ledger in ‘Ned Kelly’ (2003). (Photo: Moviestore Collection)

Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang will be at least the 11th biopic on the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, including Abe Forsythe’s comedy Ned.

News of Kurzel’s film, which will star George Mackay, Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult and Essie Davis, has sparked a lively debate on social media.

Some screen industry figures questioned the need for another retelling of the saga of the gang leader and convicted murderer who was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880.

Others believe the screenplay by Shaun Grant, adapted from Peter Carey’s 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang, will give an entirely fresh spin on the legend.

Director Lawrence Johnston posted on Facebook, “Do we need another? Gregor Jordan made a perfectly respectable film out of this subject and there have been others. It is like Spielberg telling the same stories of boy history and violence, over and over and over again.”

Among numerous other comments on FB:

Writer/producer Kate Ferguson:  “Yeh, as usual, 9 lead male roles and one token female.”

Sandstar Films’ Sandra Alexander: “Please not another one!”

DOP Richard Michalak: “As long as they make it clear he murdered 3 cops in cold blood I am fine with it.”

QED Productions’ Roger Dunn: “If you’ve actually read Peter Carey’s great book of the same title, you’ll see how an adaptation of its angle on the Kelly saga will be like no other.”

Grant, who is renewing his collaboration with Kurzel after their breakthrough Snowtown, tells IF: “We believe our film is different than anything that’s come before in terms of Ned Kelly films. To me his story is timeless and open to reinterpretation, like Shakespeare or Superman or many other tales.”

Crowe himself humorously weighed into the debate on Twitter when someone asked, “Does the world really need another Ned Kelly film, and this one starring telephone man?”

The actor clearly took in good spirit the reference to the infamous incident in 2005 involving a phone and a concierge in a Manhattan hotel, tweeting: “Indeed, cinephiles need a Justin Kurzel Ned Kelly for sure. No phones in 1870s so most crew will be safe. Stage coaches & traps not so safe.”

Crowe will play bushranger Harry Power alongside Mackay as Ned, Hoult as Fitzpatrick and Davis as Ned’s mother Ellen.

The cast includes Sean Keenan as Joe Byrne, Dacre Montgomery as George King, Harry Greenwood as Aaron Sherrit, Earl Cave as Ned’s brother Dan, Travis Fimmel as Seargeant O’Neil and Thomasin McKenzie as Mary.

Released in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang is widely recognised as the world’s first feature-length narrative movie. Among other notable titles in the Kelly canon are Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1970), which starred Mick Jagger, and Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2003) with Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Naomi Watts.

Matthew Holmes, who wrote and directed The Legend of Ben Hall, is among those who do not see any need for a fictional account of Kelly’s story.

Earlier this year the filmmaker tried to finance his own feature, The Legend of Ned Kelly, via Kickstarter but gave up after raising $121,000.

“We wanted to approach the Ned Kelly story with the same respect and adherence to historical accuracy that we did with The Legend of Ben Hall,  because I don’t feel the Kelly story has been treated that way yet in cinema, although the 1980 TV series came very close,” Holmes tells IF.

“Knowing that Kurzel’s film is based on Peter Carey’s book, which is a fictionalised account of the Ned Kelly story, was also another reason we wanted to offer a version to audiences that didn’t take those liberties. My view is we don’t need another fictionalised version of Ned.  We’ve had enough of those; it’s time the story was done with razor-sharp accuracy – as much as possible – so Australians can properly understand the story without this compulsive need to brand him as either ‘hero’ or ‘murderer’.”

Holmes is now working on projects based on dozens of other fascinating bushranger stories but says he is glad there is more interest in that genre, adding: “I hope that Kurzel’s film continues to boost that awareness.”

Produced by Porchlight Film’s Liz Watts, Daybreak Pictures’ Hal Vogel and Romulus Entertainment’s Brad Feinstein, Kurzel’s film will shoot in Victoria next March, with production investment from Screen Australia, Film Victoria and Film4. Transmission has the Australian rights.

Ned Kelly on screen:

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) played by Frank Mills

Ned Kelly and His Gang (1906) – Godfrey Cass

The Kelly Gang (1920) – Godfrey Cass

When The Kellys Were Out (1923) – Godfrey Cass

When the Kellys Rode (1934) – Leslie Hay-Simpson

The Glenrowan Affair (1951) – Bob Chitty

Ned Kelly (1959) – TV – Ken Goodlet

The Stringybark Massacre (1968) – short film – Rob Inglis

Ned Kelly (1970) – Mick Jagger

The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977) – TV – John Waters

The Last Outlaw (1980) – TV – John Jarratt

Reckless Kelly (1993) – Yahoo Serious

Ned (2003) – Abe Forsythe

Ned Kelly (2003) – Heath Ledger

Besieged: The Ned Kelly Story (2004) – documentary – Peter Fenton

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald