The latest screen version of the Ned Kelly legend is an impressively staged, dark-toned revisiting of the life and times of Australia’s boldest and most charismatic outlaw. With an imposing performance from Heath Ledger at its center, Gregor Jordan’s frequently grim saga depicts the time in late 19th century colonial Australia when Irish-Catholic immigrants were treated as second-class citizens by the Protestant English Establishment. Downbeat saga’s authentic feel should attract Aussie audiences, who have always responded to the man some call the country’s Jesse James. Overseas prospects for this first production of Working Title’s Aussie arm are more iffy; in Britain and Ireland, pic should play decently, but Stateside (where test screenings have, reportedly, proved disappointing) there will be less appeal.
The first feature-length film made in Oz, indeed one of the world’s first features, was “The Story of the Kelly Gang” (1906) and the saga has been re-told five times, most recently in the Tony Richardson film, “Ned Kelly” (1970), which toplined a miscast Mick Jagger. Somewhat surprisingly, this new telling of the legend is not based on Peter Carey’s well-regarded 2001 Booker prize-winning “The True History of the Kelly Gang” (which has been slated as a project for Neil Jordan) but rather on Robert Drewe’s less-known “Our Sunshine” (1999).
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Life in rural Australia in the 1880s was extremely hard for first-generation Irish immigrants like the Kelly family. At age 16, while riding a stray horse in the company of the beauteous Jane Jones (Saskia Burmeister), Ned (Ledger) is charged with stealing the animal and sent to prison. Three years later, he returns to the dirt-poor farm where his widowed mother, Ellen (Kris McQuade) ekes out a meager living caring for Ned’s brother, Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and his two sisters, Kate (Kerry Condon) and Grace (Emily Browning). Ned gets work as a stable-hand for landowner Richard Cook (Nicholas Bell), a man who would rather shoot a wild horse than break it in. But there is some compensation in the presence of Cook’s lovely wife, Julia (Naomi Watts), who is attracted to the young laborer.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), a local policeman, rejected by Kate, retaliates by stealing the Kelly’s horses. Ned and Dan and their buddies Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) retrieve the animals. When Fitzpatrick arrives at the Kelly home to search the place, Dan Kelly disarms him and throws him out. Though Ned is off consummating his passion with Julia at the time, Fitzpatrick accuses him of firing a gun at him. The brothers, together with Joe and Steve, go into hiding in the bush, unable to prevent the beating and arrest of their mother.
An early confrontation with police ends in the death of three officers, and the premier of Victoria (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) hires top cop Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) to capture the miscreants. The Kelly gang defiantly embarks on a series of bank robberies, often giving away the proceeds to poor people like themselves, and before long become folk heroes.
In the end, a botched attempt by Ned and his gang to wreck a train carrying Hare and a large police force fails, resulting in a police siege in which massive firepower gets the better of the special armor Ned has designed for himself and his men.The well-known trajectory of the story is predictable enough even for the uninitiated. McDonagh’s screenplay touches all the right bases, although perhaps more could have been made of the conflict between the Irish and the English. The fictionalized introduction of the love story between the impoverished Ned and the aristocratic Julia is the film’s weakest concept, though this is no fault of Watts, who brings grace to the role of the wayward wife.
McDonagh’s attempt to inject some humor into the story, mainly confined to a sequence in which the Kelly gang robs a bank in a small town and takes hostage the bank manager (Geoff Morrell) and his wife (Rachel Griffiths) is intriguing. Griffiths is amusing in her cameo playing a woman all too willing to sample the Kelly charm. Bizarre, too, but apparently historically correct, is the presence of circus animals during the climactic siege.
Despite these brief lighter moments, this is basically a tragic story, given somber treatment. Oliver Stapleton’s scope photography avoids the expected cliches of the Australian bush, using a gray, lowering landscape, chilling and stark, with a dark, desaturated color palette. The battle at Glenrowan takes place in driving rain.
Ledger, clean-shaven in the early scenes and fully bearded in the second half of the film, cuts an imposing figure as the charismatic outlaw and ably carries the film, but Rush doesn’t have enough screen time to establish his nemesis with any great authority. Bloom cuts a striking figure as Joe, the most charming member of the gang, and Joel Edgerton, who plays Aaron, a friend of the Kellys who eventually betrays them, expertly creates a man in conflict with himself. His fate at the hands of Ned, who is dressed in drag at the time, is one of the film’s highlights. Kiri Paramore is most effective as the repellent Fitzpatrick.
The handsome, meticulously produced picture, which is accompanied by a plaintive musical score by Klaus Badelt, impresses for its rigorous recreation of the period and its refusal to turn the Kelly legend into horse opera.