Film reviews: The True History of the Kelly Gang | Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Color Out of Space | Dark Waters

Justin Kurzel’s take on Peter Carey’s novel about Ned Kelly is pleasingly strange, writes Alistair Harkness, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire lives up to the festival hype

George MacKay stars in The True History of the Kelly Gang, based on the novel by Peter Carey

The True History of the Kelly Gang (18) ****

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15) ****

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Color Out of Space (15) ***

Dark Waters (15) ***

Following his soulless videogame adaptation Assassin’s Creed, Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) returns to form with The True History of the Kelly Gang, a punky, violent, pleasingly strange adaptation of Peter Carey’s Booker-winning novel. Simultaneously interrogating and burnishing the mythology of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, the film pays tribute to the experimental, rough-hewn, punctuation-free prose style of Carey’s book with an almost wilful disregard for conventional biopic plotting. Jumping episodically around Kelly’s life, it provides contextual horrors for his descent into criminality and his defiant rejection of colonial rule, but doesn’t fall into the trap of glorifying or excusing them. Played brilliantly as a kid by Orlando Schwerdt and as an adult by George MacKay (1917), this Ned Kelly isn’t the romanticised, bushy-bearded version portrayed by Heath Ledger in 2003 (or – gulp – the Mick Jagger version from 1970); instead he’s a damaged child, with an emasculated drunk for a father and a manipulative harridan for mother (Essie Davis) whose own talent for needling her first born becomes something that Ned finds increasingly hard to escape as he grows into a wiry, unsure-of-himself outlaw hurtling inescapably towards his fate.

Violence begets violence is the general theme, but as Ned learns early on from his enforced mentorship with Russell Crowe’s burly bushranger, Harry Power, controlling one’s own story is the key to controlling one’s own life and the film uses this as license to further deconstruct the legend with abstract action sequences that sensationally reconfigure his final stand-off with the authorities as a stroboscopic nightmare of bad decisions and misplaced hubris. The end result is a tough watch, but worth the effort.

A few weeks after Parasite’s Oscar triumph, the second most breathlessly received international feature of the last 12 months finally arrives in British cinemas, having been hothoused on the festival circuit since its Cannes debut last May. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the new film from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, sees the Girlhood and Tomboy director blooming creatively with an audaciously constructed story of artistic obsession and romantic desire. Set in 18th century Brittany, the film revolves around a painter called Marianne (Noémie Merlant) who has been commissioned by an Italian noblewoman (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), for the express purpose of landing Héloïse a wealthy Italian husband and securing both mother and daughter a luxurious existence back in Milan.

Tragedy, however, has already complicated this arrangement, making it necessary for Marianne to pose as a companion for Héloïse and attempt to complete the portrait covertly – a process that intensifies their relationship and takes it (and the film) in more surprising and erotically charged directions as Marianne comes clean about her deception. What follows in the more intriguing second half is a simmering meditation on the power of art to both tease out unconscious desires and set them free, but it’s the way the film stealthily transforms this into an exploration of the thrilling yet debilitating grip fleeting moments of intense connection can exert on those who experience them that makes its prolonged final shot so memorable.

The eccentric South African-born filmmaker Richard Stanley achieved infamy in the 1990s when he snuck back onto the set of his Marlon Brando-starring adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau as an extra after being fired as its director three days into production. Working on a more manageable scale (and with a more pliant cast), he returns now with Color Out of Space, a suitably wacko adaptation of the 1927 HP Lovecraft alien invasion-themed short story of same name. Nicolas Cage takes the lead as Nathan Gardner, a failed painter turned alpaca farmer, whose livestock and family start exhibiting strange behaviour after a meteor crashes on his land. Apart from the alpacas, it’s a fairly standard alien invasion set-up and Stanley takes care to ground his characters somewhat by having Cage temporarily restrain himself. But from the moment someone loses some fingers carelessly chopping carrots, Stanley reveals this almost Spielbergian dynamic to be something of a ruse: as the toxic alien presence exerts its grip on the surrounding area, both star and film go properly nuts, with Cage subdued one minute and howling at the moon the next and Stanley’s visuals toggling between psychotropic weirdness and outright gore.

Toxic substances are at the heart of Dark Waters too, though in this sobering true life drama the toxicity is the very real pollution caused by an obscure chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon – a disturbing fact that only came to light thanks to the tenacious efforts corporate lawyer Robert Bilott has made to hold US chemical giant DuPont to account for covering up the damage they’ve done. Zeroing in on Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) as his conscience is piqued, the film charts his David-and-Goliath-style legal battle to expose DuPont’s corporate malfeasance. Essentially it’s a legal procedural in the Erin Brockovich mould, though director Todd Haynes (Carol) keeps the mood much darker, playing down his signature style while maintaining the pervasive air of paranoia that suffused his breakout film Safe. Likewise, Ruffalo avoids movie-star theatrics, playing Bilott with the non-glamorous, slump-shouldered weariness of a man burdened by a cause bigger than himself and his immediate family. Unfortunately Anne Hathaway gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop with the thanklessly written role of Bilott’s neglected wife, but Haynes makes the potentially dry legal proceedings driving the film compellingly horrifying. ■


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