Males from Down Under have been cutting quite a swath in our imagination in recent years. I mean, remember all those nifty swimmers in Sydney last summer at the Olympic games? Not to mention the likes of Mel Gibson. All right, so he was born in Peekskill, N.Y. and only hit Australia at the age of 12, but his "Mad Max" put him and Australia on the map in a big way. And he's the first movie star to make the pricey $25 million a flick. As well, we've been seeing what his mates Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush can do, racking up big box office scores -- not to mention collecting Academy Awards, nominations and statutes.
Australia, in its own way, has much in common with the Wild West days of our own country. Although a relatively new country, the British started shipping their convicts there in the 18th century to settle the vast and largely barren land. Many of the deported convict folk were Irish, and a very rough lot they were too. They were treated brutally -- even savagely -- yet, on the whole, managed to survive, becoming all the tougher for it. Just check out Robert Hughes' quite wonderful and horrifying history of Australia, "The Fatal Shore," and read of the appalling tales of convict existence in those times. Any one of a half dozen could make for a great movie -- but tough, very tough stuff. They all make life on Devil's Island look like the proverbial day at the beach.
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It's no surprise, then, that such conditions and such men could produce some bigger-than-life creations -- mythic, legendary figures. Ned Kelly, leader of the Kelly Gang, is one such folk hero. Born in the last quarter of the 19th century to a poor Irish family -- the grandfather of whom had arrived as a convict -- Kelly is remembered today as being sort of a latter-day Robin Hood of sorts.
Kelly had his movie, made about 15 years or so back with Mick Jagger as the eponymous Ned, which boasted a terrific poster -- a great metal bucket-like shape like some grotesque knight's helmet in fierce dark reddish coloring. The movie itself, alas, was panned by the critics and largely ignored by the public. Jagger stayed out of the movie business.
But the legend of Ned Kelly and his gang still teased the imagination of Australian novelist Peter Carey who'd earned himself England's prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize for "Oscar and Lucinda," a tale of extravagant doings in 19th century Australia. Today Carey and wife live in Manhattan, but Australia stays very much alive in his latest novel, "True History of the Kelly Gang," just published by Knopf.
Carey fashions his novel as being the long lost handwritten manuscript -- "thirteen parcels of stained and dog-eared-papers" -- of Ned Kelly addressed to his infant daughter, a daughter he was never to see, telling of his short and violent life. Carey, maintaining the fiction of this newly discovered manuscript, retains the idiosyncrasies of a marginally literate man. This device can be somewhat annoying. But once you adjust to his never using "was," but using "were" instead, and "v." for "very," "wd." for "would" and "1/2" for "half" in every conceivable place, like "1/2 mad," and "her frightened 1/2 brother," you gradually get accustomed to these quirks and go along with them. Profanity, Carey forswears, choosing to delete letters, or using phonetic initials ("effing"), or entertainingly resorts to the frequent use of "adjectival" as in "They've no adjectival hope of reading our tracks you take my word for it."
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Carey brings great tenderness and lyric beauty to Ned Kelly's account, while not forswearing the violence. A beauty and a lyricism it seems doubtful the real life Kelly ever gave much thought to, but these passages add greatly to the power and strength of the tale. The accounts of raids and violence are told with great vividness and power. Kelly went to the gallows at 26 but packed an immense amount of life into those short years.
Even though you know from the outset Kelly's fate, Carey makes you care about him and for him. It's clearly time for someone to take another shot at bringing Ned Kelly's story to the screen. Too bad, of course, the likes of Gibson and Crowe are quite a few years past 26, but surely among the crop of rising Australian actors there's got to be one to carry on the legend.
Waiting for the movie, "True History of the Kelly Gang" makes for one fine read.