Ned Kelly Review

Glenrowan, Australia, 1870s. Edward “Ned” Kelly (Heath Ledger), the son of a transported Irish convict, is frequently in trouble with the law, and is sent to prison for four years. On his release he swears to be law-abiding and finds work on an English land-owner’s estate, and has an affair with the man’s wife Julia (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile the police continue to persecute Ned’s mother (Kris McQuade), leading to an incident with a policeman for which Ned is blamed (although he wasn’t there) and his mother imprisoned. Ned and his friends, including Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) go on the run and become outlaws.

Normally, I wouldn’t give away the end of the movie, but as it’s a historical fact that Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Jail in 1880, I think it’s justified here. Since then, Kelly’s legend and folk-hero status has continued to this day. It was only twenty-six years later that Charles Tait made the hour-long The Story of the Kelly Gang which has claims to be the first feature-length film ever made in the world, though sadly only a few minutes of it survive. It was extremely popular with the local audience – who cheered the Kellys and booed the police – that the authorities banned it as an incitement to rebellion. There have been several films since, the best known before now being Tony Richardson’s 1970 version, with Mick Jagger as Kelly. There have been novels as well, including Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winner True History of the Kelly Gang. A film version of that novel was developed, but the present film version, based on Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, supplanted it.

Ned Kelly is pretty much an antipodean Western, with the local police (led by Geoffrey Rush’s Superintendent Hare) taking the place of a sheriff and his men, and the action being resolved in one huge gunfight. Gregor Jordan and his crew have gone for a look of dusty authenticity. There’s no doubt that this is a handsome-looking production, with several well-staged sequences. The contributions of the cinematographer (Oliver Stapleton), production designer (Steven Jones-Evans) and costume designer (Anna Borghesi) are all first-rate, and there’s a rousing score from Klaus Badelt. Heath Ledger, who had worked with Jordan before on Two Hands, has the right presence for the part, risking turning the film into a one-man show. Rush and Bloom do what they can with underwritten roles, and are further hampered by the no-doubt historically accurate thick beards they wear. Naomi Watts’s role seems superfluous: you’re reminded of endless male buddy movies where the women only exist to show that our heroes are heterosexual. In the supporting cast, it’s nice to see such a long-serving actress as Kris McQuade, even if she is getting typecast as mothers these days.

I don’t know if this is the definitive Kelly film – I haven’t seen the earlier versions, though it’s fair to say that their reputation does not precede them. What we have here is a well-made, mainly absorbing story that no doubt presents the folk-heroic side of the legend. If you take the opinion that the legend glorifies a murderer, then you’ll no doubt find this film frustrating, though I doubt that a film putting forward that version of the story would be likely to be made.

Universal’s DVD is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4. The picture is transferred in the correct 2.35:1 ratio and is anamorphic. It’s fair to say that it’s very good indeed, sharp with strong blacks and true to the intentionally drab colour scheme. Shadow detail is very fine, which is just as well as there are quite a few scenes set at night or in dim lighting. Inevitably there is a little grain in some scenes, but that’s down to the original film and it’s not distracting.

The soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. It’s a very active mix, with plenty of directional effects, ambience and the score making good use of the surrounds. There’s plenty for the subwoofer to work on, what with gunfire, horses’ hooves and an explosion. Comparing the often negligible and much argued differences between Dolby and DTS offerings is made all the more difficult on this disc as the audio tracks cannot be switched via your remote, and instead require dropping back into the menu system. After executing the lengthy switching process a few times and taking into account the standard volume increase DTS offers I came to the conclusion that in this case neither track is necessarily better than the other so just go with what your setup allows and enjoy.

There are twenty chapter stops. English subtitles are available, though they can only be switched on and off via the menu, not via the button on your remote. There are occasional locked subtitles, translating some Cantonese dialogue and providing a caption before the final credits. Subtitles are provided for all the extras as well as for the feature.

For such a recent release, this disc is light on extras. There’s no commentary, for example. The most substantial extra is the documentary which the menu calls “Ned Kelly in Popular Culture” but its actual title is “Ned Kelly: Cultural Icon”. Narrated by Bud Tingwell, this short piece shows shots of the Melbourne world premiere of this new film version, less than a mile away from the jail where Kelly was hanged. It then goes back in time and takes in all the previous film versions onwards. It’s certainly nice to see clips from some quite rare films though it would have been an idea to include all that remains of the 1906 version, given its historical importance. The clips from the 1970 version are very grainy. The featurette is full-frame and runs 13:37. A documentary on Kelly and his gang might have been worthwhile: with a film like this, you always wonder what is fact and what fiction.

Next are two trailers, one a teaser (0:56) and the full version, running 2:00. Both are 16:9 anamorphic. Inevitably there are some minor spoilers, though as most people know the story at least in outline, that’s less of an issue here than it would be for other films.

“The Real Kelly Gang” consists of a photograph in the centre of the screen which can be changed by clicking on one of four thumbnails below it. Each one is a photograph of the real person: Ned Kelly, Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Bryne (spelled differently to the way it is in the film). “Artist to Feature Comparison” is similar, with two pictures side by side (a still from the film and original artwork, costume or set design sketches), changed by clicking on one of six thumbnails underneath. And the same goes for “Poster Campaign”: one large picture, four thumbnails, each one showing a different design for the one-sheet poster. These are full-face close-ups of Ledger, Bloom, Watts and Rush.

Ned Kelly is a good film, though certainly not a great one, and it shouldn’t be a waste of your hour and three quarters. Universal’s DVD has excellent picture and sound, though is light on extras. However, the Region 4 release by Universal appears to be identical, and there isn’t a Region 1 disc as I write this. So if you are interested in this film, I’d suggest buying it from whichever region and source suits you best.

Thanks to Dave Foster for the Dolby Digital/DTS comparison.

Kevin O’Reilly’s cinema review can be read here.

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