Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly

***

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Ned Kelly was introduced to the West through Sidney Nolan's paintings of a man in an iron mask. Later, in 1970, Tony Richardson made a decidedly camp biopic, in which Mick Jagger destroyed his burgeoning acting career. Kelly's reputation as Australia's answer to Jesse James has been romanticised out of all proportion, something director Gregor Jordan attempts to put right in this new film. The result is drab and strangely unfocused.

The story is well known. In the 1870s, Kelly responded to police harrassment of his family with an act of violence that forced him to become an outlaw. For a short period, he and his ragged band of friends and relatives ran rings round the authorities. They robbed banks and gave the money to those who had suffered on their behalf.

Copy picture

Quickly, among the downtrodden immigrant communities, he became a folk hero, even more so after copying the notion of protective armour from a book about Japanese samurai and being seen in his square iron helmet, like a creature from another planet, surviving a barrage of bullets. Eventually, trapped in a country schoolhouse, surrounded by an array of police marksmen, it came to an end. He was 26 years old.

Jordan and screenwriter John Michael McDonagh make every attempt to defuse the myth. Kelly is portrayed as a slow-witted young man, with a strong sense of injustice, who feels uncomfortable in the role of gunslinger. When stealing money from financial institutions, he remembers his manners and is polite at all times to the victims of his raids.

Where the film succeeds is in its depiction of endemic lawlessness that filters through a society created by convicts. The police appear incompetant, arrogant and corrupt, while the Irish, as usual, are picked upon. Heroics have no place here. If they occur, it is either by mistake, or in self-defence.

The colour is grainy and the landscapes barren. The posh Surrey housewife (Naomi Watts), married to an older landowner, appears absurdly naive. She has the hots for Ned, which is understandable, but to follow through with sexual favours takes credulity into the danger zone, although not quite as unbelievable as a bank manager's wife (Rachel Griffiths, providing a comic cameo, complete with botched Scots accent) who has a quickie with one of the robbers during a hold up.

When it comes to introducing the armour, the gang have been on the run for over a year and are drained of energy, as well as cash. Who welded the suits? Who designed the helmets? Who paid for them?

After a weak performance in The Four Feathers, Heath Ledger is a revelation as Ned. He captures the strength and uncertainty of the man, his rectitude and quiet determination, as he rides the whirlwind. A brooding presence, forever trying to lessen the odds, he is weighed down by responsibility, carrying tragedy like the body of his unborn child.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2003
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The myth The Kelly Gang is brought down to earth in an unromantic biopic.
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Director: Gregor Jordan

Writer: John Michael McDonagh, based on Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe

Starring: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Philip Barantini, Kerry Condon, Kris McQuade

Year: 2003

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia/UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2003

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