Director: Gregor Jordan
Stars: Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton
Second viewing, via DVD
This week marks the 137th anniversary of Australian outlaw and beloved anti-hero Ned Kelly’s doomed last stand at Glenrowan, Victoria. In June 1880, Kelly and the other young men comprising the Kelly Gang—brother Dan Kelly and friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart—fought police at Glenrowan Inn wearing their now-iconic DIY head and body armour. Byrne, Hart and the younger Kelly were killed during the siege; Kelly himself was wounded and arrested, and would be hung in Melbourne Gaol in November that year.
The Kelly legend pervades Australian popular culture, and has been filmed repeatedly. 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang was the world’s first feature length film, clocking in at an hour and change, though only 17 minutes survive today. Later decades yielded further films, with the most (wrongly) notorious being 1970’s much-maligned Ned Kelly, starring import Mick Jagger as the titular outlaw and directed by Oscar-winner Tony Richardson. The last 25 years have yielded comedic takes on the legend from actor-directors Yahoo Serious (1993’s Reckless Kelly) and Abe Forsythe (2003’s Ned). Also released in 2003 was Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly, arguably the most reverential and earnest filmic take on the material so far. Despite its starring turn from the late Heath Ledger and becoming the highest-grossing Australian release of that year—placing it in the top 40 Australian films at the local box office—it underperformed commensurate with its budget and it feel like the film is largely forgotten today, a footnote in Australian cinema and its star’s tragically short career.
Jordan’s film chronicles Kelly’s life from his earliest altercation with the law—as a teenager wrongfully accused of horse theft—to the last stand at Glenrowan, encompassing his attempts to “toe the line” in Queen Victoria’s country, his romantic dalliances with an affluent housewife (Naomi Watts), and his provocation and persecution by the Victorian police that ultimately spurs him to take arms against the law and the wealthy. Frequent allusions are made to Ned’s yearning for a normal life, his compassion for his family and wrongly imprisoned mother, and an act of heroism committed during his childhood, which collectively paint a sympathetic portrait of the outlaw and frame his turn to crime as a product not of nature, but of nurture and environment.
In the Ned Kelly DVD’s special features, director Jordan describes his film as an “interpretation” of the Kelly legend, not “a defining tale”. Having said that, films have a habit of fixing their interpretations in the eyes and minds of viewers; to quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. In this particular case, Ned Kelly is all the way with Ned K, casting Kelly as an anti-establishment class warrior, bestowing quasi-sainthood on him, and depicting the law and the rich in one-dimensional and predominantly unflattering lights; indeed, several of the film’s men of wealth fail to satisfy their wives, who turn to the outlaws for some extramarital excitement.
Heath Ledger’s own premature death echoes his character’s, and like Kelly’s has birthed its own legend; indeed, a new documentary seeks to debunk some of the more reckless lore that’s attached itself to Ledger’s death. On top of the pathos that Ledger’s own passing bestows upon the film, the role of Kelly appears, in retrospect, the nexus point of various aspects of the young actor’s star persona: a young Australian icon, the teen heartthrob and matinee idol of Ten Things I Hate About You, the new crim on the block of Two Hands, the star of historical dramas and adventure films (see also The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale, The Four Feathers), the misspent youth of Candy, the counter-culture rebel of Lords of Dogtown and I’m Not There, the oppressed and socially ostracized tragic hero of Brokeback Mountain, and so on. While more interesting work and performances lay ahead of the actor—including the film that, in Ledger’s case, would help “print the legend”, The Dark Knight—Ledger brings conviction and soulfulness, as well as shades of James Dean and River Phoenix (two other talents cut tragically short), to the part of Kelly. Surrounding Ledger is a who’s who of burgeoning and veteran talents, including Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, Peter Phelps, Rachel Griffiths, Charles Tingwell, Emily Browning, and import Orlando Bloom doing some of his best onscreen work.
I was surprised in the opening credits to see the great John Michael McDonagh (later writer-director of The Guard, Calvary, and War on Everyone) credited as screenwriter (adapting Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine), given the film’s earnestness is at odds with the caustic tone typical of McDonagh’s later film work. Similarly, director Jordan’s previous two films, Two Hands and Buffalo Soldiers, were small, spunky, scrappy movies, whilst Ned Kelly more closely resembles ornate, respectable prestige fare. Nonetheless, as far as ornate, respectable prestige fare goes, Ned Kelly is a skilfully made and handsome product, and one of the biggest disappointments of its lukewarm reception is that it took much of the wind out of this talented, rising filmmaker’s sails.
I’ve no doubt there will be further Ned Kelly films; indeed, there’s a campaign currently running from the makers of The Legend of Ben Hall to kickstart a new Kelly-themed film. I’m all for that. Jordan’s Ned Kelly is hard to fault on a technical or craft level, and it’s something of a necessity: it fulfilled a hankering for a sincere, generously budgeted, relatively authentic, well-burnished treatment of the material with an A-list Australian lead, a pedigree Australian cast and crew, and all the tools and affordances of modern filmmaking. Now that that’s sorted and out of our system, I’d love to see different filmmakers dig into the legend and offer up different, less venerable takes. I’d love to see a Baz Luhrmann Ned Kelly film, or a Jennifer Kent Ned Kelly film; heck, lift the moratorium on overseas directors tackling the lore and let Guy Ritchie make a Ned Kelly film. There’s plenty more marrow to extract.
Next time: Down Under Flix crosses the pond with Bruce Beresford, looking at three of his underrated American films…