Published on September 26th, 2003 | by Jay Richardson0
Cast: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Joel Edgerton
Given the furore that enveloped his Buffalo Soldiers, it’s perhaps understandable that director Gregor Jordan’s take on the Ned Kelly legend is less controversial than the man in the bucket’s life story allows for. Based on Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine, the shades of grey cloaking the outlaw are reduced to black and white characterisations of Kelly as a wronged outsider, with the Aussie police corrupt self-servers to a splendidly moustachioed man. But if you like your historical tales told in the Mel Gibson spirit of triumphant martyrdom against all odds, this is a competent and blandly enjoyable film with a solid central performance from Heath Ledger.
The opening credits quickly establish Ned’s heroism. In hazy, dreamlike recollection we see the young Ned saving another boy from drowning, his voiceover setting up a mawkish bond between “Sunshine” and his now dead father, Red. Thus the psychological terrain is laid out as explicitly as the physical – which admittedly looks great, capturing the wilds of the nineteenth century outback and rural homesteads, but why so many establishing shots of animals? – as Ned is portrayed as both the good son taking responsibility for his big Irish immigrant family and the rebel offspring of a ne’er do well: lacking guidance but not the urge to kick against the pricks of a boorish Victoria constabulary.
Emerging from prison after an early run in with the law, Ned is escorted home by friends Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Aaron Sheritt (Joel Edgerton), and knuckles down to a life of farming and horse herding. His only distraction appears to be his beautiful but married English neighbour Julia (Naomi Watts), but there’s a local copper called Fitzpatrick who has taken a shine to his sister Kate (Kerry Condon). So while Ned is away in the hay with Julia establishing an alibi – in scenes so clunking they bring an unintentional Ted and Ralph Fast Show hilarity to the script’s leaden Lady Chatterly aspirations – a drunken Fitzpatrick has crashed the Kelly home and had his advances repelled.
Chastised, his hand bleeding, Fitzpatrick returns to town claiming that Ned shot him. As a precaution, Ned and Joe, plus brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and friend Steve (Phil Barantini), hide out in the hills, but the police still arrest Ned’s mother (Kris McQuade) on a trumped-up charge of attempted murder. A desperate Ned slinks back to plead with Julia to prove his innocence, but fearful of losing her children, she refuses.
An obvious example, this richly illustrates mainstream film’s standard take on historical biography: English men are rich, arrogant, effete and duplicitous bastards; English women are posh, secretly highly-sexed but not serviced properly by their husbands, and all Irish immigrants are poor and dirty but have a rough romantic charm that English women find irresistible, though God forbid the class divide remains crossed by the end credits. In a variation, Ned and the rest of the gang hold up a bank, while Joe is upstairs making his own withdrawal from the Scottish bank manager’s wife (an amusing cameo from Rachel Griffiths). But I digress.
The gang attain real notoriety after shooting three policemen dead in a kill-or-be-killed firefight. But the film is desperate to maintain Ned’s decency. In an unintentionally comic chase, he repeatedly cries “stop and I won’t shoot” before blasting his prey away, though this is redeemed slightly by the voiceover’s musing on why he subsequently steals the man’s pocket watch.
Essentially now Robin Ned and his merry oiks, stealing from the rich and giving to the Irish underclass, they acquire beards to rival their enemies and pen letters of insult and social comment to the establishment as they loot their banks. In fact, it’s all going great guns until the arrival of Superintendent Hare, a careerist cop played by the criminally underused, outlawfully so in fact, Geoffrey Rush.
A wily operator, Hare persuades Sheritt to betray the gang, but they avoid an ambush and Byrne kills his former friend. The scene is now set for a final showdown in the Glenrowan hotel, with cops arriving en masse and the gang standing their ground with all-over body armour. It’s by far the best part of the film, though nothing that hasn’t been seen before in a Western. As civilians are cut to pieces, Ned survives, though only to be hanged.
A workmanlike but generally uninspired attempt to portray the outlaw’s short, turbulent life, Ned Kelly benefits from some respectable acting turns, notably Bloom as ladies man Byrne, and a gruff, but charismatic Ledger in the title role, hinting that he may actually be a better actor than his previous work suggests. Awareness of how it ends doesn’t help, but there really is nothing surprising or memorable in this movie, and Watts’ tacked-on role merely irritates. Jordan seems overwhelmed by the legend he is attempting to convey, and after the brilliant Buffalo Soldiers, this is hardly a step forward.
DVD Special Features
‘Ned Kelly In Popular Culture’ featurette
Storyboard to final feature comparison
‘The Real Ned Kelly’ featurette