For a country that was founded as a prison colony, Australia has a surprising shortage of legendary outlaws. That's why Ned Kelly gets to be Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and Pretty Boy Floyd all wrapped up in one. The new Australian production of Ned Kelly appears to be a retelling of the tale rather than a remake of the 1970 movie also called Ned Kelly, which was infamous for a miscast Mick Jagger in the lead role and a soundtrack featuring Waylon Jennings singing the songs of Shel Silverstein.
The question is, will this Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger with an Orlando Bloom chaser, finally earn the Aussie legend a Stateside following? Since the R-rating will thwart the very people who actively seek out Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom films I'm guessing....no. That R-rating is something of a mystery, too, Trim five seconds of a needless and un-arousing nude scene and maybe one less graphic death and the film loses nothing. If it was simply a matter of pursuing mature subject matter, Ned Kelly isn't particularly complex or challenging, either. It is a perfectly well photographed and acted film, but from the opening moments we know our misunderstood protagonist is going to hang. Like his life on the lam, it is a more enervating than enlightening journey.
Set in the Victorian wild west of the 1870s and '80s, Ned Kelly is a second generation Australian who more clearly identifies with his Irish ancestry. In the upside down world of down under the local cops are Englishmen who look down on the Irish labor. And making no attempt to dispel stereotypes, Ned and his Irish pals enjoy nothing more than drinks and fisticuffs. Just because the man leering at your sister is a policeman does not exempt him from a spirited thrashing, but then Ned has spent his whole life on the wrong side of the law, which according to the film is closer to the right side of honor and dignity. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed trains for fun and profit and did not begrudge their pursuers. But in this telling of the tale, Ned Kelly doesn't steal horses....they just follow him home. He doesn't look for fights, but fights have a way of finding him. Just before he shoots a policeman point blank, Ledger's Kelly wails in anguish at the man for forcing Ned to kill him. We don't know where or when the true story is being burnished for the sake of folk legend, and director Gregor Jordan perhaps assumes we already know some of the particulars, as Americans might recall the Battle of Little Bighorn or the Shootout at the OK Corral. There is little historical or social context, though Jordan does liberally sprinkle the film with fleeting glimpses of native aborigines, kangaroos, Naomi Watts and Rachel Griffiths.
The climactic shoot-out in Ned Kelly is a long time coming, and the epilogue is exceedingly brief, noting merely that despite a petition to spare his life signed by 32,000 people, Ned Kelly was hanged in 1891 at the age of 25. I don't know if his death had any affect on corrupt Australian law-enforcement or on the treatment of Irish labor by the landed gentry. But I do know that anyone who finds a better vehicle for Heath Ledger is going to be a real hero.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/24/04
Australia/UK/France - 2003