Australia appears to have relatively short and uneventful history compared with other parts of the world. Yet Australians share one trait with all other nations – tendency to transform certain historical figures – deservedly or undeservedly – into mythical large-than-life figures. One of those men is a subject of Ned Kelly, 2004 Australian historic drama directed by Gregor Jordan.
The plot of the film, based on the novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe, begins in 1870s Victoria, British colony where many Irish immigrants tried to find the new life and escape the poverty of their old country. But, just as their countrymen in Ireland, they were subjected to the brutal British rule, embodied in thuggish police force. Ned Kelly (played by Heath Ledger) is son of one such family. Years of feud with police erupt during the incident that would lead to his mother being arrested and Kelly himself being falsely accused for shooting at police officer. Kelly and couple of his friends escape to the bush and become outlaws, kill policemen sent after them and later start impressive career of bank robbers. Their exploits, which include burning of bank mortgage documents, capture imagination of the impoverished masses and Kelly becomes a folk hero. With British rule in Australia threatened, authorities send experienced police official Francis Hare (played by Geoffrey Rush) to lead massive manhunt.
Life of Ned Kelly was short, violent and, despite some historians trying to describe his life ofcrime as some sort of anti-British revolution, it didn’t affect Australian history much. But Ned Kelly’s impact to the culture of young nation turned out to be enormous. More than a century later, Ned Kelly continues to be one of Australia’s most recognisable icons. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that life of Ned Kelly used to be popular subject among Australian film-makers from the very beginnings of Australian film industry. 2003 film by Gregor Jordan is most likely not to be the last one made about that larger-than-life figure.
The reasons why another generation of Australian film-makers will try to make their own version are in the more than apparent flaws of Jordan’s film. While John M. McDonagh’s script should be forgiven for taking the one-sided and simplistic portrayal of Ned Kelly, director Jordan fails to deliver a film worthy of such mythical figure. Despite relatively high budget (for Australian standards) Ned Kelly looks like glorified TV film. The cast, despite being impressive on paper, leaves much to be desired. While Heath Ledger is passable as Kelly, presence of Orlando Bloom in the role of Kelly’s friend Joe Byrne is annoying – an obvious attempt to increase film’s box office chances by attracting Bloom’s female fans. Talents of Naomi Watts in the standard and completely unnecessary role of Kelly’s romantic interest are wasted – the actress fails to produce any on-screen chemistry with Ledger, despite two of them being a real-life couple. Rachel Griffiths is also wasted in the small but embarrassing role of sex-starved English middle-class wife. Even more disappointing is Geoffrey Rush in the role of the film’s nominal chief villain.
Although watchable, Ned Kelly is a film that definitely won’t share the immortality with its protagonist.
RATING: 3/10 (+)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on March 16th 2005)
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