In 1871 in Australia, a young Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger) is arrested by Constable Lonigan (Peter Phelps) for supposedly stealing a horse. Three years later Ned is released and his friends, Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Aaron Sherritt (Joel Edgerton), take him back to his family. There Ned works to build an honest life, but Constable Fitzpatrick’s (Kiri Paramore) affections for Ned’s sister, Kate (Kerry Condon), devolve into warrants for Ned’s arrests. Ned, his brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan), Joe and Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) flee to the outback and become outlaws. His legendary exploits lead the Colonial Government to send Superintendent Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) to apprehend the wily bushrangers known as the Kelly Gang.
Ned Kelly is a dramatization of the events of real life Australian bushranger Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly. Directed by Gregor Jordan, the film was adapted by screenwriter John Michael McDonagh from Robert Drewes’ novel Our Sunshine. All that backstory is to say, not being Australian, I’d never heard of Ned Kelly.
The film portrays Kelly as somewhat of a Robin Hood of the Australian outback, and I can not speak to the accuracy of that depiction. As moviegoers, we know true stories are often simplified (and embellished) into familiar story structures for easier digestion and increased entertainment value. The plight of Ned and his companions is stirring, largely thanks to a charismatic, compelling performance by Heath Ledger. Through the leadership of his men, his speeches to his fellow Irish Australians, and his own internal monologue, Ledger’s Kelly is given full dimension. The same can not be said of his costars.
Bloom’s ever-present Joe is given little more to do than be a salacious rascal. If not for the altercation between Dan Kelly and Constable Fitzpatrick, I’d not be able to differentiate him from Steve Hart. Naomi Watts plays the object of Ned’s affections, the married noblewoman Julia Cook, and has perhaps a total of three minutes onscreen. Given her minor role in the film it’s excusable, but Superintendent Hare is equally absent. Always excited to watch Geoffrey Rush perform, I was disappointed Ned’s adversary is given such a marginal number of scenes. The one thing that you can count on from everyone is superb, yet somewhat incomprehensible accents.
It’s a good thing Ledger’s performance is so absorbing. It also helps that the plot maintains a constancy of action. The Kelly Gang is always on the move; robbing banks, dodging the Victoria Police, and surviving in the wild. Sometimes Ned Kelly seems to jump from each of these poignant moments instead of progressing traditionally. Even so, director Gregor Jordan is skillful at utilizing symbolism to parallel and represent the events in Ned’s life.
I’m glad I can add another Heath Ledger film to my log books. Would I watch Ned Kelly again? While it’s enjoyable enough, there’s not much reason to revisit it. If I did, I would definitely turn on the subtitles.