Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (15)

Pet projects are often flawed affairs, and Ned Kelly is up there with the best of them – a rose-tinted romanticised re-telling of the life and crimes of the notorious 19th century bushranger with Heath Ledger as the man in the iron mask.

Director Gregor Jordan bases his version on Robert Drewe’s biography My Sunshine but his stab at Kelly’s story veers off in a totally different direction to the Tony Richardson/Mick Jagger version of 1970 though both aspire to be Outback westerns.

In Jordan’s film Kelly is put on a peculiar pedestal: the killer as folk hero. But Ned was no Robin Hood; moreover he was closer to Billy the Kid (at least Peckinpah’s version of Billy Bonney) though you’d never believe it from Jordan’s sanitised approach.

From the off Ned is cast as a trier, a kid who never got the chance for a fair break. When the local police steal his horses, he steals them back under cover of darkness. Soon he is jailed on trumped-up horse rustling charges and emerges from gaol four years later a hardened criminal (though Ledger doesn’t cut it as a tough guy) with an alarming beard.

When a local copper lays a hand on his sister, Ned steps in. Soon there are accusations of attempted murder, and it is Ned and his mother the police come for. Ned and his pals go on the run. With nothing to lose, they begin robbing banks, holding up towns and outwitting the police at every turn. Rapidly they win the hearts of the populace.

But the establishment will not allow itself to be ridiculed by a band of Irish immigrants and drafts in Superintendent Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) to catch them. A battle of wits begins; it is a battle that will finish for Ned at the end of a rope.

Ned Kelly is an engaging film but, at the same time, an infuriating one. Throughout the movie Ned is depicted as a victim of circumstance – the honour and goodness of the poor working class versus the corrupt and murderous cops. In the figure of the impossibly good-looking Ledger (despite his pantomime beard, all historically accurate) Ned is cast as a noble savage – an animal with a gun to be shot down on sight.

Jordan would have us believe that Ned and his killer cronies – including rising star Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne – were cut from the same cloth as Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance or John Dillinger, that they were fighting oppression. In fact they were rampaging around the Outback stealing, killing and whoring with abandon.

Ledger plays Kelly as a pistol-packing angel of vengeance whose pride and courage is matched by his naivety, but also as a man who, eventually, must execute his own when they are revealed as turncoats. “It’s Regina versus us: the Kelly Gang,” says one.

Yet while the picture ultimately fails (it is fatally undermined by a contrived love affair between Ned and the fictional Julia, played by Naomi Watts) Jordan has managed to pull off at least two stunning sequences: a nocturnal flight on horseback through a raging forest fire, and the final  haunting stand-off with the police at Glenrowan Inn as Ned and his three pals emerge, like iron-clad wraiths in the rain and mist, to embrace their destiny. Those moments alone are worth the price of admission.

Star rating: ***

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