Irishman Ned Kelly always had his fair share of bad luck growing up in Australia. Returning home after years inside a prison for stealing a horse and assaulting a lawman, Kelly tries to change his destitute family’s ways, taking on jobs and trying to rebuild his life with his brother and friends (including Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, and Phil Barantini). When a wayward officer of the law tries futilely to win the heart of Ned’s sister, the incident turns violent, with the “copper” lying about Ned’s involvement in the situation. Finding themselves no recourse but to run, Ned and his gang retreat into the wilds, and from 1878-1880, they became national legends as they robbed banks, gave to the poor, and outwitted Superintendent Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) in their quest to clear their names.
Being an American, the legend of Ned Kelly isn’t something I was familiar with before I sat down to watch the film. The new cinematic take on the legend, “Ned Kelly,” (IMDb listing) is a decent primer to the ways of the Aussie outlaw, but I imagine it shouldn’t be considered the definitive lesson on the Kelly Gang. Filmed numerous times over the past 100 years (most famously, a 1970 production with Mick Jagger as Kelly), the true story of Ned Kelly has gone from fact to legend, with director Gregor Jordan’s film falling somewhere more toward the legend perspective. Trying to satisfy both the purists and the newbies to the tale, Jordan (“Buffalo Soldiers”) deftly weaves the notorious factual instances of Kelly’s descent into outlaw status (the iron body armor, the Jerilderie letter, and Kelly’s beloved silk bravery sash) with traditional dramatic structure that a bio-pic like this sometimes requires to get from A to B. The invention of a romantic interest for Kelly, played by the luminous Naomi Watts, is truly the film’s most glaringly false note. Blame “Titanic” if you will, but Jordan’s attempt to inject a little romantic fire into a story populated with well-known events and historical figures is a complete failure, wasting precious screen time with an obvious attempt to appeal this rugged story to teenage girls and their disposable incomes.
One of the more interesting textures to “Ned Kelly” is Jordan and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton’s use of the bleak Australian countryside to frame the Kelly saga. Often cutting away to the unbiased gaze of the exotic creatures that populate the land, Jordan is wise to keep the location a tangible subplot to the story. And Stapleton shoots the land lovingly, even when it’s truly the desolate, immigrant-intensive, burgeoning area Australia was at the time.
Normally an actor of limited means, star Heath Ledger finds a perfect role in Ned Kelly. Utilizing Ledger’s gift of a booming voice and tragic looks, Jordan finds his actor fits snugly with what the role requires. Jordan’s modus operandi on Kelly is more of a battered messiah, which is historically incorrect, but Ledger performs the role accordingly and expertly. Unlike the lanky, feminine Jagger’s take on the role, Ledger sells Kelly’s passion and apologetic fury with grace.
In playing narrative hopscotch with the facts, the briskly paced “Ned Kelly” hurdles some plot points late in the game I wished were covered more thoroughly The Javert-like struggle between the Kelly brood and Francis Hare isn’t given the attention it requires, nor is Kelly’s seemingly indestructible nature in the film’s closing moments. Taken as fact or fiction, “Ned Kelly” is an interesting portrayal of the Australian legend, but the film would’ve been much better off choosing a side and sticking with it.
Filmfodder Grade: C+