On June 28, 1880, Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and his gang rode into the remote Victorian settlement of Glenrowan. They took hostages, but treated everyone pretty well and even staged an impromptu party before pursuing police arrived, surrounded the hotel in which the Kelly Gang was based, and started shooting.
This is, perhaps, the most iconic moment in Australian frontier history, as Kelly and his closest associates confronted vastly superior state forces in a lengthy siege.
At the battle's climax, Ned, who had managed to sneak away from the hotel, emerged from the bush and attacked police from their rear. Because of the dust, and the thick home-made armour he was sporting, Kelly appeared monstrous, hardly human, and whenever rattled officers managed to hit him, he shrugged and kept advancing till eventually, he was felled.
Ned survived, but only long enough to stand trial for murder and bank robbery. He died in Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880, and his last words, apparently, were "such is life".
Such indeed, and Kelly has remained a hugely divisive figure in Australian culture, a hero and Robin Hood character to some, a vicious, murderous anarchist to others.
Loved and hated in equal measure, his legend has only grown: more biographies have been written about Ned than any other Australian, and numerous plays, TV shows and feature films have celebrated his exploits. Do we need another? Perhaps, as a corrective to all the dreadful biopics that have been made about Kelly in the past. This Justin Kurzel version is based on an award-winning 2000 novel by Peter Carey and manages to be simultaneously more realistic and poetic than any previous attempt to catch the fleeting madness of Kelly's life.
Also, more even-handed, because in The True History Of The Kelly Gang, Ned seems more like a victim than any kind of villain, or hero. And Kurzel's film spends more time exploring the reasons for Kelly's furious crime spree than glorifying the bank jobs and shootouts themselves.
When we first meet him, young Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) is doing his best to negotiate his way through an extremely difficult childhood. Outside of the cities, 1860s Australia is a brutal, lawless place, and being Irish is almost as bad as being Aboriginal.
The despised, Gaelic-speaking immigrants were often pushed off into shantytowns on the worst land, and the Kellys are dirt poor farmers in the backwoods of Victoria. Ned's father, Red, is a feckless, unhappy man prone to drinking and wearing dresses, while his mother Ellen (Essie Davis) is fiercely loving, but reduced to prostitution to feed her large brood.
When his dad's imprisoned, Ned becomes the man of the house and falls in with Ellen's latest lover, a swaggering bushranger called Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Young Ned initially mistakes Harry for a father figure, but he's a vicious, ruthless criminal, and after just one road trip in his company, Kelly's firmly set on the path to perdition.
Jailed for his part in a brutal assault, Ned (George MacKay) emerges from prison all grown-up and furious. After a spot of bare-knuckle boxing, he returns to the Kelly homestead to discover that his brothers have taken up cattle-rustling.
Ned is initially not that keen on joining them, but after a fitful attempt to live honestly, his anger and resentment get the better of him, and he becomes the Kelly gang's charismatic leader. He's driven towards his doom by a blood hatred of the English and his simmering rage over the fact that his mother sold him to Harry Power as a kind of slave. And with no hope of ever getting fair treatment from the WASP ruling class, Ned happily embarks on his nihilistic spree.
There's a punkish swagger to the way Kurzel and MacKay depict the adult Ned as a strutting cockerel, furiously suppressing past traumas and inner doubts.
MacKay, who so impressively held his own amid the technical dazzle of 1917, yet again shows his range and charisma here, giving us by far the most visceral and convincing Kelly yet.
Davis (dodgy Irish accent notwithstanding) is excellent as his operatically unhappy mother, Crowe has lots of fun playing the odious Power, and Nicholas Hoult gives an oily turn as Ned's nemesis.
This is a gory film, but necessarily so, set as it is in the dying days of outback anarchy. It's shot like a western, has a grubby splendour, and though its plotting is loose at times, it really does the Kelly legend justice.
Films coming soon...
Misbehaviour (Keira Knightley, Keeley Hawes, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw); The Hunt (Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts, Hilary Swank); Calm With Horses (Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Cosmo Jarvis); My Spy (Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Ken Jeong).
Onward (PG, 109mins) ****
I was not impressed by the trailer for this latest Pixar outing, but should have known better, because yet again, they've wittily used the trojan horse of a kid's animation as the vehicle for some very serious themes. In a fantasy urban world of witches and dragons, two teenage elves use magic to bring their dead father back to life, but only manage to resurrect his legs, and must then embark on a crazy quest to summon the rest of him. Onward has a lot of fun highlighting mindless materialism, but its real subtexts are family and the slow coming to terms with grief. It's a surprisingly moving cartoon.
Military Wives (12A, 113mins) **
Another one of those depressingly chirpy ensemble British films that celebrates the power of community, Military Wives is set on an army base populated by the spouses and children of soldiers serving overseas, mainly in Afghanistan. Bad news is daily dreaded and to distract the wives, two women, Kate (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Lisa (Sharon Horgan) decide to start a choir. They don't get on, but eventually will, via the medium of terrifying close harmony. This sort of stuff can write itself, there are some decent performances and no one ever has the bad taste to ask an Afghan how they feel about being invaded.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (No Cert, IFI, 120mins) ****
Before her death last August, Toni Morrison collaborated with Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on this impressively comprehensive examination of her writing life. In 1987, Morrison exploded on to the literary stage with Beloved, a visceral portrait of 19th century slavery that was subsequently turned into a film. But by that time, she had been writing for almost 20 years, as well as finding new black voices as an editor at Random House. Her novels managed to catch the African-American experience better perhaps than anyone ever has, and to listen to her talk about her craft here is a joy.