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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Saturday February 1, 2020 

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Son of poor Irish immigrants, the 16 year old Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger) is wrongly accused of horse stealing and sent to prison. On his release four years later, Ned vows to avoid further trouble, but trouble doesn’t make the same vow. When a policeman gets too pushy with Ned’s sister Kate (Kerry Condon) in the Kelly shack, there’s a scuffle and Ned and his mother (Kris McQuade) are charged with attempted murder. His mother is jailed but Ned goes on the run and becomes determined to strike back at the brutish and unjust system. The Kelly gang is formed, with his brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and two close friends, Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom). The reward for his capture eventually rises to a massive 8000 pounds and the feared Superintendent Hare (Geoffrey Rush) is brought in to hunt the gang down with a hundred men. They find Ned and his gang at the rickety inn at Glenrowan. 

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It’s not what you might expect. Indeed, maybe this film should have been titled ‘Ned Kelly – The Hypothetical’ being based on Robert Drew’s book of Ned Kelly’s imagined internal monologues and memoirs adapted for the screen and drawing on some of the known facts of history. But of course recorded history itself is often unreliable or insufficient in the detail, so we should approach this Ned Kelly with a degree of caution as a document of history. Yet it will still be seen by many as the definitive account of not only what happened but how and why it happened, by the sheer force of its cinematic language and the sombre tone. The picture that emerges from this presentation of Ned Kelly is a Victorian police force that is as amoral as it is vicious and largely to blame for Ned’s life of crime. As a result, it’s his nobler side that is emphasised and we are drawn into the circle of sympathy for him, his family and his friends. Historical and biographical elements aside, the film gives Heath Ledger a terrific vehicle, and Ledger relishes it, creating a strong, silent type of Ned full of inner anguish, and a desperation born of circumstance. Several times he tries in vain to avoid killing police who are hunting them, and expressing his regret when he does. These are crucial details on which the film rests its moral case. He is a tragic hero figure, but a hero figure all the same and Ledger makes a great impression, a real lasting image, as Ned Kelly, and yes, he may well be the metaphorical sunshine in this overcast, muddy and forlorn vision of 1870s/ 80s Australia, as brown as dark potatoes, as murky as the hearts of the men who found themselves in this conflicted time. It looks more like their ancestral Ireland than the Australia of famed blue skies. Gregor Jordan gambles the film on Ned Kelly’s legend reaching out to us and highlighting this heroic figure, a proud young man from the underclass of a new society who was as unfortunate as he was determined. Jordan’s gamble extends to Heath Ledger making Kelly not only a real but a compelling character. Ledger delivers – hypothetically speaking, of course: we do come to understand his motives, and that’s the all-important context. And I say gamble because Jordan has avoided the histrionics that might have made the film more populist, perhaps more hyper-sensational. Jordan has given us a portrait of Ned Kelly as a political militant. Just look at the poster. No, this Ned Kelly is not a larrikin; if he were, it may be an easier film to market to mainstream audiences: it’s certainly not a date movie or some sort of rollicking period adventure. It’s a serious attempt at understanding the man and his times, and why over 32,000 people signed a petition asking for Ned’s hanging to be commuted, despite his trail of bank robberies and killings. The story touches on the very roots of Australian pioneering society and should trigger a robust debate about the man, the myth and the movie.

Review by Louise Keller:
A handsome production that pays great attention to authentic representation of the era, the legend and the landscape, Ned Kelly excels visually as it recounts a story that many may not fully know, albeit limiting our emotional connection with the man. There are many challenges in retelling a tale that is part of Australian folklore and balancing fact with fiction is a tricky juggling act. Superb evocation of place in the Australian countryside with its kookaburras, gum trees and dusty barren earth beckon us to revisit a time when the law was prejudiced and gunpowder was the language of the day. With only the luck of the Irish to protect them, these early descendents of the first settlers struggled valiantly to survive and to create any sort of decent life. Based on Robert Drewe’s book Our Sunshine, John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation is a sympathetic one, with much of the film glorifying Ned and showing the constabulary in black and white (black, mostly). For me this is the sticky point – I would have connected more readily with the film had this bias been less apparent and I could discover the injustices for myself. Gregor Jordan has opted to tell the story in a cinematic and straightforward way, allowing its scale to match the legend. Those expecting a flair-driven Bonnie And Clyde-style entertainment may be disappointed; this is a drama reflecting the hardship of the times and the events that have become myth. The narration by Ned himself offers opportunities for insight, and Heath Ledger’s softly spoken Irish brogue is convincing. Ledger certainly looks the part of this rogue of an 19th century Irish Australian outlaw, but never quite loses himself in the role. These are big shoes to fill, especially considering the expectations and massive hype which includes the larger-than-life images of Ledger’s heavily bearded face touted everywhere – from sides of buses to giant billboards all over the country. Not to mention the media attention focusing on Ledger’s off-screen romance with his leading lady Naomi Watts, in which she plays his on-screen (fictional) love interest. Most accessible is Orlando Bloom, who heads the excellent supporting cast, offering real heart in his portrayal of Kelly’s best friend Joe Byrne, while Laurence Kinlan (Angela’s Ashes) and Philip Barantini (Band of Brothers) impress as gang members. Joel Edgerton excels in a complex role, Geoffrey Rush brings gravitas, and light relief comes in the form of Rachel Griffiths, who makes every hilarious moment count as a hostage who is exceptionally willing. A tale of friendship, betrayal and standing up for your beliefs, Ned Kelly is an important film for Australia and although there is much to recommend it, I personally wanted to enjoy it more.

Review by Richard Kuipers:
The advertising for Ned Kelly tells us 'You can kill a man. But not a legend'. The irony of this film about the Australian folk hero's is how it fails to capture that very legend. Part of the problem is historical fact. Kelly and his gang only robbed a handful of banks (though he did kill many policemen) before the last stand at Glenrowan. The legend we know is forged almost entirely around the image of a man in armour firing on dozens of police and surviving to be tried and hanged, despite a public petition for mercy signed by 32,000 people. The lead-up to the climactic confrontation doesn’t really give a sense of his extraordinary hero status. The burning of mortgages in a bank and Ned receiving good wishes from hostages and townsfolk here and there give some idea but what’s missing is the scope of Kelly’s notoriety. We know that he’s the highest-priced outlaw in the Empire and fearsome police chief Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) has been assigned to capture him but it doesn’t ever seem like the whole colony is talking about Ned Kelly. What’s desperately required are scenes outside Kelly country. We need to see people in the city and suburbs of Melbourne and beyond discussing the outlaw deeds and political tub-thumping of Ned and his boys. Evil Angels used this kind of technique very successfully in dramatising the far-reaching social effects of the Azaria Chamberlain case. Unfortunately everything in this film feels much too local and you have to wonder what overseas audiences will make of what plays like a small story with a spectacular climax. The film correctly assumes that almost everyone in the Australian audience will be sympathetic to Kelly and wastes no time in setting up the Victorian police force (and by proxy the British colonial government) as 'the biggest thieves and liars the sun ever shone on'. From the moment Kelly emerges from his first prison stint on trumped-up horse stealing charges the screenplay based on Robert Drewe's book Our Sunshine charts his path as more or less the inevitable outcome of unjust persecution. As a biography it is a solid account of Ned's relationships with his fiery sister Kate (Kerry Condon), mother Ellen (Kris McQuade) and gang members Dan Kelly (Lawrence Kinlan), Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) but it doesn't shift up a gear once Ned's outlaw career begins. The same applies to his romance with the fictional character of Julia Cook (Naomi Watts), a wealthy landowner’s wife who pops up when dramatic convenience requires but does not emerge as a fully rounded character. Gregor Jordan's film is a vast improvement on the 1970 version starring a terribly miscast Mick Jagger. Heath Ledger looks the part and brings plenty of spirit to the role and there’s good support from Orlando Bloom as cheeky Joe Byrne and Joel Edgerton as gang associate Aaron Sheritt. I wouldn’t class this as a failure but Ned Kelly lacks the energy and sense of awe the legend demands.

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CAST: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Philip Barantini, Rachel Griffiths, Kerry Condon, Kris McQuade and Geoffrey Rush

PRODUCER: Nelson Woss, Lynda House

DIRECTOR: Gregor Jordan

SCRIPT: John Michael McDonagh (novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe)


EDITOR: Jon Gregory ACE

MUSIC: Klaus Badelt


RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes



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