An Australian western based on the exploits of the continent’s best-loved outlaw and folk hero, Ned Kelly stars Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom. Review by Kevin O’Reilly
Midway through Ned Kelly, the latest film about Australia’s most famous outlaw, director Gregor Jordan frames the four members of the Kelly gang riding side by side into a small desert town, their figures shimmering in a heat haze. This is a western in all but location – it’s Young Guns down under with heartthrobs Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom robbing banks, romancing women and shooting it out with the law. As history, it’s as romanticised as most Hollywood westerns, which isn’t surprising considering the feeling Australians have towards Kelly. He’s a folk hero, a nineteenth century Robin Hood who took on the establishment and fought for the common man and this film, based on Robert Drewe’s novel “Our Sunshine”, is based firmly on Kelly the legend.
In terms of its tone, the movie’s divided into three distinct acts. The first part, the most effective, shows why Kelly was forced to become an outlaw. The son of an Irish thief transported to Australia for his crimes, he grew up in Victoria in the 1860s and 70s in a poor Irish community that was treated as an underclass, particularly by the corrupt, bullying police force. We first see Ned being wrongly arrested for stealing a horse, for which he receives three years hard labour. On his release, he finds his family being routinely harassed by the cops. Despite attempting to earn an honest living on a ranch, Kelly is again wrongly accused of a crime and this time, when the police track him down, he shoots them. Together with his brother Dan, his best friend Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and family friend Steve Hart, Ned goes on the run, thus forming the notorious Kelly gang. Hunted by every policeman in the state, they turn to bank robbery to support themselves.
The tone lightens in the middle section, which recalls Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid in its light-hearted depiction of the Kelly Gang’s antics. Like many popular criminals, it was Ned Kelly’s style and sense of humour that endeared him to the public. In the film’s best scene, Kelly dictates a contemptuous letter to the police in the middle of a robbery and the bank’s customers add their own insults. The fun doesn’t last. The Australian authorities and the British empire itself are embarassed and angered by Kelly’s defiance, a price is put on his head and a British superintendent (Geoffrey Rush) is brought in to track him down. The final section, which works the least well, is the darkest as the net inevitably closes in on the Kelly boys. Here the material can’t support the mythic tone Gregor Jordan is going for. Eerie visuals and solemn narration by Heath Ledger seem pretentious and out of place after the muscular, no-nonsense drama that’s gone before. Thankfully, the film gets back on track for the climactic showdown.
Ned Kelly lives up to its title by concentrating its attention firmly on its hero, at the expense of the supporting players. Orlando Bloom, despite his second billing, is reduced to sidekick status and never emerges as a strong character, while Naomi Watts has only a few scenes as a rich colonist’s wife with whom Ned has an affair. They both do better than Geoffrey Rush – the Oscar winner barely registers. It’s Heath Ledger’s show from start to finish and fortunately he’s up to the job. If his lacklustre work in The Four Feathers and The Sin Eater suggested he couldn’t handle serious roles, this time he proves himself a real star. Ledger gets you on his side right from the beginning and carries the weaker parts of the film. Australian director Gregor Jordan also rises to the occasion. His last film, Buffalo Soldiers, was well made but patchy. It veered from thriller to farce to drama without any real cohesion. Ned Kelly also suffers from inconsistency but to a much lesser extent. On the whole, it’s solid crowd-pleaser. With a new crop of Hollywood westerns on the horizon, Ned Kelly is good enough to remind us of the pleasures that can be had from the genre.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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