March 26, 2004
Australian outlaw Ned Kelly has often been compared to Jesse James or Billy the Kid. Although this comparison is superfically accurate in that Ned was a kind of horse-thievin', bank robbin' quasi-cowboy, Ned Kelly's name recognition in Australian is considerably higher than those of the Old West gunslingers in America. (Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln of the Vegemite set.)
Warning: The following four paragraphs contain minor spoilers.
The real life Kelly story contains many elements that sound straight out of a Hollywood screenplay. Basically, in Australia in the mid 1800s, young Ned, his Ma and his many, many little Irish brothers and sisters were scraping to get by with a little subsistence farming and possibly a little bit of petty larceny on the side. One night a dodgy town constable named Fitzpatrick came to the Kelly home to execute an outstanding warrant on Kelly's younger brother Dan (after stopping at the pub for a little liquid courage first). As you might expect, the Clan Kelly didn't take kindly to this intrusion of their humble homestead and an altercation ensued in which the constable was minorly injured. However, rather than report back to his supervisors that his general incompetence and on-duty flirtation with Lady Liquor had caused him to botch the arrest, Fitzpatrick cooked up a story in which an enraged Ned (who may or may not have even been on the scene during the incident in question) had ambushed him and tried to kill him while brother Dan resisted arrest.
Although even the local police found Fitzpatrick's story a bit fishy, prevailing public sentiment wasn't biased too favorably towards Irish immigrants and several of the Kellys were charged with the attempted murder of a police officer. Ned and Dan quickly went on the lam, while Mama Kelly eventually received a 3-year jail sentence.
As you might imagine, the whole experience significantly soured young Ned's faith in the The System. At first he and the rest of the Kelly Gang (which by this time included Ned's mates Joe Bryne and Steve Hart) spent most of their days doing nothing more nefarious than writing sharply worded letters to the local Magistrate and trying to avoid being killed by cops, bounty hunters and/or Australian wildlife. However, after an unfortunate incident in which Ned and Joe Byrne killed three policemen who were sent to capture them, the Kelly Gang were well on their way to becoming Australia's Public Enemy No. 1 (errr, Public Enemies Nos. 1-4?).
From there on out, the Gang decided that while crime may not pay much, it had to pay more than just hiding and trying to avoid capture. They staged two separate bank robberies, although neither incident resulted in any death or injury to any of the civilian hostages (and on at least one occasion, the Gang entertained hostages with a trick riding exhibition before taking off). The Gang then remained at large for another 17 months, and during that time their legend continued to grow and the reward for their capture to eventually climbed to approximately $1.5 million in today's money.
In the interest of not spoiling too much of the movie for those who don't know the Kelly legend (ie, all non-Australians), I'll refrain from detailing the gripping climax to the Kelly Gang's story. Suffice it to say, the real life Ned and his pals were colorful characters who captured the imagination of the country both during their stint as renegade outlaws and long after their eventual deaths. Although many regard Ned and the boys as heartless cop killers, many see them as tragic victims of a corrupt and prejudiced system.
So with all this in mind, Heath Ledger and director Gregor Jordan were both blessed and cursed. On the one hand, the source material makes for a fascinating story, and it's no surprise that the Kelly legend has been made into a movie several times previously (including a version starring Mick Jagger that is so reviled that Australians are constitutionally required to cross themselves and spit on the ground at the mere mention of it). On the other hand, because the story is so well known in Australia and because the previous movies are mostly considered to be "utter crap", local Aussie boys Jordan and Ledger were under enormous pressure from the home crowd not to "go Hollywood."
To his credit, Jordan did not sell out to studio pressure to make the Australian version of Young Guns and ended up sticking almost fanatically to the accepted canon. (I understand there were a *lot* of arguments with the suits over whether the Teen Beat cover boys Ledger and Orlando Bloom would be obscuring their boyish good looks with unattractive, but historically accurate beards.) However, as we saw from the first Harry Potter movie, the impulse to play it safe to avoid fan wrath can often result in an end product that pleases no one.
This version of Ned Kelly tries oh-so-earnestly to be a smaller scale version of Braveheart. Whether that’s a desirable goal is a matter of debate, although I suppose that this is a more noble ambition than being the low cal version of say........Booty Call. But in trying to be so respectful of the legend, the end result ends up being rather bloodless and emotionally unengaging. Although there are occasional hints of darker side to Ned, the story is mostly follows the tried and true theme of “Innocent Man Unjustly Persecuted by The Man" we've seen so many times before. So while it's not a crassly Hollywood movie, it ends up having a very workmanlike feel of getting from Well Known Incident A to Well Known Incident B without a lot of introspection in between.
Ledger's strength as an actor has always been in his on screen charisma and the movie is considerably better when he's allowed to show Ned's playful side. He and the Not Gay! Orlando Bloom have nice chemistry together, particularly during the robbery scenes. Rachel Griffiths also has a fun cameo as a randy married hostage who gets a bit of the Stockholm Syndrome for Bloom. Always amusing Geoffrey Rush basically reprises his Inspector Javert role as a policeman obsessed with tracking down the Kelly Gang.
The one concession to Jordan and Ledger were willing to make to the Hollywood suits was the inclusion of the entirely fictitious upper class woman (played by Naomi Watts) with whom Ned has an distracting and largely pointless love affair. Watts's acting is perfectly adequate given the thankless role she's been given. However, her sole purpose in the film seems to be reassuring the audience that although our Heath Ledger spends most of his time tripping about with other extremely pretty young lads, he’s definitely, definitely a card carrying member of Team Hetero (though given her purported real life "relationship" with Ledger, surely that's a particular role she's had a lot of experience playing). (Jennifer Turnock/BOP)
Vital statistics for Ned Kelly
Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush
Rachel Griffiths, Emily Browning, Kerry Condon, Russell Dykstra, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Kiri Paramore, Peter Phelps
John Michael McDonagh
|Click Here for Trailer
|Talent in red has entry in The Big Picture
Comparison films for Ned Kelly
|Knight's Tale, A
|Four Feathers, The