December 5, 2002
Starring: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Phil Barantini, Kerry Condon, Kris McQuade, Emily Browning, Kiri Paramore, Rachel Griffiths, Geoff Morrell, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, Saskia Burmeister, ,
A legend in Australia, Ned Kelly was the most infamous outlaw of the 19th Century, so it’s no surprise this is the fifth screen outing for him and the Kelly Gang.
There’s a scene in the 1993 film ‘Reckless Kelly’ where Yahoo Serious exits a bank with a stash of money. The police arrive and promptly surround him. The twist is that he’s wearing homemade body-armour that protects him from their bullets – a trick he learned from his ancestor. Skip backward 120 years and the original Ned Kelly was doing exactly the same thing during a stand-off with Francis Hare and his troops in the outback. It just goes to show how deep the story of Ned Kelly runs in Australia and, whilst not so well known over here, the name should still ring a bell.
Gregor ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ Jordan’s film is based on Robert Drew’s novel ‘Our Sunshine’, widely considered the most accurate portrayal of Ned’s story. How much of this truth makes it to the screen is debatable (true stories don’t always make great cinema) but we learn that Ned was forced into crime and the local police didn’t much like the Irish Kelly family repeatedly getting one over on them. Ned was jailed for stealing a horse as a teenager and emerged as a full grown man not adverse to using his fists as often as his wily brain.
He meets Julia at a stable, an upper-class woman who falls for him, but who can never leave her family. Whilst they are together, Ned’s mother is arrested in repayment of a crime Ned never committed, so he joins up with his brother Dan and his friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) to negotiate her release. But things quickly degenerate into a blood-bath and suddenly there’s no turning back. The Kelly Gang is born.
Viewing the film without an Aussie’s perspective renders the experience rather formulaic. How many times have we seen the downtrodden hero forced to fight moronic policemen in sandy streets (Tombstone, Young Guns, Wyatt Earp), robbing banks, getting the girl, being betrayed? That this is a true story makes us forgive some of the inconsistencies and cliche’s on display, but it can’t disguise the fact that Ned Kelly’s story was over almost as soon as it began. He robs banks. He’s cornered. He’s caught. The end. Naomi Watts’ character disappears halfway through, and you can’t help but feel short-changed. And this being an Australian tale, Geoffrey Rush and Rachel Griffiths were bound to pop up at some point, but as with Watts, they have very little to do but flirt and frown respectively.
The trouble wth adapting a true story is that you have very little flexibility with the facts. Fiction can be structured. Real life cannot. So the downbeat ending spoils everything that’s gone before it, which is a shame because the performances (especially by Bloom who, yes, can actually act) are rather good. Ned Kelly is an uneven tale (as uneven as Ledger’s facial hair, which jarringly changes in every scene) but not without merit. The silhouetted line-up of the gang in their body-armour is an iconic moment and conjures up the requisit chills. Sadly, for the rest of the running time, it’s a case of seen it all before, but nice try.
Not exactly mind-blowing stuff on display here, but you do get a short featurette about the Ned Kelly Cultural Phenomenon, charting the first film made about The Kelly Gang in 1906 right up to the Mick Jagger version in 1970, where Ned was finally portayed as young (he died aged 25) and Irish. It shows just how highly regarded Kelly is down-under and offers some interesting facts about his history.
The other features are made up of a teaser trailer, the full trailer, poster concepts, storyboard comparisons and images of the real Kelly Gang. No commentaries or deleted scenes. Slim pickins’, as Ned might say.