Ned Kelly

Amiable enough semi-historical effort that isn't as epic as it ought to be.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 01 Oct 2003 by Scott Morris
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Depending on whom you listen to, Ned Kelly was either a murderous, bank-robbing savage or a disadvantaged Irishman railing against a system rife with prejudice. The truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes but the real story of his intent is likely to have been buried by the sands of times forevermore. This adaptation of the novel Our Sunshine treats him largely as a cross between Robin Hood, Ghandi and Chow Yun Fat, robbing banks to give back to his wrongly imprisoned brethren, never firing until fired upon and rarely having to reload. It doesn't make any great claim at historical accuracy, but it also can't claim to be a particularly great film.

Heath Ledger, who seems to be inexplicably being pushed as the Next Big Thing™ by the studios steps into the shoes of the Australian-Irish folk-hero who is slammed away in prison for a crime he did not commit (again, according to this movie. The real story is a little muddier but for the purposes of this review let's just trust the film, eh?). On his release he vows to plough a straight and true course of honest righteousness, taking a job as a labourer in the household of a local English toff. As one of the perks along with raising some money to build up the Kelly family farm Ned also gets to ogle the lady of the manor, Julia (Naomi Watts). Despite the scandal that would erupt if anyone were to uncover their relationship it's not long before the two are getting hot and bothered in the stables together.

Meanwhile, back at the Kelly ranch Ned's sister Kate (Kerry Condon) is being bothered by a persistent Constable Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore) that won't take 'bugger off, you repellent oafish buffoon' for an answer. Showing up drunk, he starts making moves that the assembled Kelly family and friends deem inappropriate and Dan Kelly (Laurence Kinlan) starts a bit of a tussle with the copper. In the ensuing melee, Fitzpatrick's gun goes off but only to wound himself. He returns to the police station to claim that Ned Kelly shot him.

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Ned is innocent of course, he was busy playing hide the sausage with Julia at the time. Although he asks that Julia come forward and tell the police this, she fears the scandal would mean she'd lose her kids. Betrayed by the system once again, Ned goes into hiding in the outback along with Dan and their trusted friends Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (Phil Barantini). The police try to flush them out and in the shootout that follows they reluctantly kill three policemen, with another theoretically touching scene where Ledger shows that he just hasn't got the hang of portraying 'sad' on screen. Their goose now cooked, the Kelly gang move around the country while the police start imprisoning anyone with a vague connection to the Kelly family to try and shake information from them. Hearing of this injustice, Ned and co rob a few banks and give the money to the families of those semi-lawfully nicked.

All of which turns him into a popular folk hero of sorts. With no one wanting to spill the beans on their beloved bebearded fellow the police call in all-star copper Supt. Hare (Geoffrey Rush) and a huge squad to try and hunt down and shoot these outlaws. After one of the Kelly family friends eventually cracks and tells them where they can be found, Ned sets an audacious plan to face down overwhelming odds. It fails utterly, leaving the four terrorist / freedom fighters holed up in a pub with the entire town population alongside them as hostages facing over a hundred coppers. They have an ace in the hole of sorts with their famous suits of armour.

Which is one of the movies problems, really. Though clearly integral to the legend it's difficult to look particularly heroic when you've got a steel bucket over your head. It lends a faintly ridiculous air to what should be the tense, climatic final shootout that becomes really ridiculous when a monkey is taken out in the crossfire. There's nothing quite as good at deflating tension than seeing a stuffed monkey being propelled backwards at speed followed by a lilting Irish brogue proclaiming "Ah, the monkey's been shot! Poor little bugger!". While in the context it's a hilarious line it's at a time when levity ought to have been absent and as final acts go it's more Hot Shots: Part Deux than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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No-one has particularly nailed the Irish accents but none of them are too reprehensible. The only absolute shocker come from one of the bit part players, Rachel Griffiths (of The Hard Word, bringing along many of the other stars of that movie as well) who seems to be attempting a Scottish accent that was raised in Transylvania and summered in Nicaragua. The only character that really gets to say anything of consequence is Ledger who blusters away with suitable conviction even if what he's saying occasionally makes zero sense. Everyone else might as well not have bothered showing up. The performances are all adequate, but exactly what the point in inventing the character of Julia from thin air merely to give Watts an excuse to saunter around in escapes me. Similarly little is heard from the rest of the Kelly gang, and if Phil Barantini has more than four lines in the whole film I'm damned if I can remember them. Rush looks ill at ease with his role but as he gets about a minute of screen time it's hardly noticeable. Orlando Bloom is present, but that's about all.

Cinematically it's pretty lazy. It establishes the story is set in Australia by the tremendously non-innovative way of showing a kangaroo hopping around and this shorthand continues throughout the film. It ought to be easy to include a few jaw dropping scenes if you're making a film down under, as the landscape can be absolutely stunning. That the most visually exciting location used throughout the entire movie is a forest that could have been shot approximately anywhere is a travesty. Where are the sweeping vistas, the plains, the deserts? Given that the movie is trying for an epic-type feel to go with the whole legendary story ethos it's absence really hurts the film. My jaw remained completely un-dropped.

To be honest, pointing out flaws in this film seems like kicking a puppy that's urinated on your sofa. It may seem appropriate at the time and perhaps even a little fun, but you know that on Judgement Day you can't really defend your actions. It doesn't really do anything particularly badly, it's just not doing anything particularly well either. Ned Kelly trundles along it's own little course amiably enough, and it's almost likeable in places but the overall experience is just pretty bland. Things happen, but no-one cares all that much about it because Ned aside the characters are barely present and it makes it very difficult to get involved with it in any meaningful way. It's not the worst film you'll ever see, but when the most impressive thing in a movie is the fine collection of circa-1870's facial hair styles it's hardly a suitable candidate for recommendation. As the final words of Ned himself go, 'Such is life'.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.

Gregor Jordan
Cast list:
Heath Ledger (Ned Kelly)
Orlando Bloom (Joe Byrne)
Geoffrey Rush (Supt. Hare)
Naomi Watts (Julia Cook)
Laurence Kinlan (Dan Kelly)
Phil Barantini (Steve Hart)
Joel Edgerton (Aaron Sherrit)
Kiri Paramore (Const. Fitzpatrick)
Kerry Condon (Kate Kelly)
Emily Browning (Grace Kelly)
Kris McQuade (Ellen Kelly)