Dir: Gregor Jordan. Australia. 2003. 109mins.
The lasting iconographic significance of armoured 19th-century outlaw Ned Kelly to Australian culture and mythology can not be underestimated. However, as Gregor Jordan's unromantic recreation insists, the Kelly Gang were 100% Irish, fighting age-old wars against the hated English in a hostile new land. Ned's image at home remains potent and any big-screen, big-budget biopic would attract major local arthouse and multiplex action, even if Australian superstar Heath Ledger were not wearing the weird homemade helmet. But Working Title Australia will be hoping that Ledger can carry this $34m feature into overseas territories beyond home turf, especially the US, where the Kelly legend means little or nothing. International audiences expecting an upbeat Robin Hood or a shoot-and-chase Jesse James may, though, be disappointed. Ledger's Ned Kelly agonises over his enforced criminal activities, roams a poisoned, blackened countryside, and dourly faces the certain death of a misunderstood martyr. It means that, despite the film's positive qualities (great performances, fine productions) it will not prove an easy sell. The film opened in Australia on 350 screens on March 27 after a world premiere the week before.
Ledger carves a monumental figure, brooding behind a brilliant series of ever-thickening facial hair, and he's joined by other big-name Australian stars: Naomi Watts shines as a rich settler's young wife, Geoffrey Rush gives weight and danger to Ned's unrelenting nemesis and Rachel Griffiths sparkles in a welcome comic encounter during a bank robbery. Her short scene with Orlando Bloom, the fast-rising English actor from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, is a stand-out.
This is not Peter Carey's 2001 Booker Prize winning take on the legend from which Irish film maker Neil Jordan was to make a feature, since stalled. Instead, the plot used by Australian Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Buffalo Soldiers) comes from an earlier, more poetic novel, Our Sunshine (1991) by Robert Drewe.
Unjustly jailed for horse-stealing at the age of 16, embittered Ned returns after four years to his family's dirt-poor farm where his mother (McQuade) cooks wombat stew for younger brother Dan (Kinlan), sister Kate (Condon), and potential gang members Joe Byrne (Bloom) and Steve Hart (Barantini). This struggling Irish community contrasts with the wealth and gentility of nearby English settler Tom Cook and his attractive wife Julia (Watts), for whom Ned goes to work as a farm-hand.
When a local constable comes drunkenly courting Kate at the Kelly shack, hot-headed Dan fires his pistol. Ned is blamed, even though he was canoodling with Julia at the time, and his mother is arrested. Ned vows vengeance and takes to the bush with his gang, soon gunning down the posse sent to capture him. Bank robberies and notoriety follow: the downtrodden locals have a hero at last. But when methodical outlaw-hunter Superintendent Hare (Rush) takes over the chase, water holes are poisoned and acres of bushland burned to the ground. Ned and his gang must drink the blood of their beloved horses to survive.
Production values are sky-high: period costumes, settings and make-up exceptional. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (Restoration, The Shipping News) sweeps over a different kind of rural Australia that is harsh, unyielding and, as Ned puts it, "muddy enough to bog a duck".
Surprisingly, the legendary armour is deliberately downplayed: who made it and how it was made are interesting questions simply ignored and, but for a brief scene with one breastplate, the four complete sets of heavy steel-plating just suddenly appear for a climactic shoot-out which seems always certain to fail. Jordan makes the very most of this famous siege, with pouring rain, massed and panicky police marksmen, and the early morning appearance of the doomed Ned, rising out of the mist like a misplaced monster, the very stuff of myth.
Prod co: Endymion Films, Working Title Australia
Aust/NZ dist: UIP
Int'l sales: Universal
Exec prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tim White
Prods: Lynda House, Nelson Woss
Scr: John Michael McDonagh, based on the novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
Cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton
Prod des: Steven Jones-Evans
Ed: Jon Gregory
Music: Shirley Walker
Main cast: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Philip Barantini, Kris McQuade, Rachel Griffiths