The story of Ned Kelly on film is as old as feature filmmaking itself, with the first ever feature-length film being a version of the outlaw’s story in 1906. The film was incredibly successful, but was banned in some parts of Australia because they thought it glorified Ned Kelly, leading to fears that it might influence more people to become criminals. Fast forward nearly 100 years later, and there has been a version with Mick Jagger as the Aussie outlaw, a well-regarded TV mini-series, and numerous other films on Ned Kelly. The Aussie director Gregor Jordan, who just made the excellent black comedy Buffalo Soldiers, has now also had a crack at Kelly and his gang.
The film isn’t brilliant, but it a solid performance by Heath Ledger, who was actually completely age-appropriate for Kelly. Kelly died at 25, and of course Ledger would sadly pass away at a far too young 28. It’s a fairly straightforward version of the story, touching on his prison time, getting his gang together, becoming an enemy of queen and country, and of course his legendary last stand at Glenrowan where they used these crazy suits of armour that have formed the image all Australians know of Kelly.
Jordan is a perfectly fine director, but it seems like he was far too willing to listen to studio executives. The script was written by John Michael McDonagh (his first produced screenplay) and in his own words, this where it went wrong: “It was intended to be a lyrical poetic western in the style of Terrence Malick or Sam Peckinpah, and it was turned into a bog standard studio biopic where they’re trying to do another fucking king Robin Hood story!” It seems like his intent was basically to do what Andrew Dominik (who is an Aussie, ironically) did so brilliantly with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film whose greatness still shined through despite having been compromised by studio interference. Bret Easton Ellis shared similar displeasure in the way Jordan handled the adaptation of his short story collection The Informers.
However, despite a clear contest between two ideas of how the Kelly saga should be approached, it does work as a decent enough western. It was an early career highlight for Ledger, and Joel Edgerton, who is now one of the bigger actors around, gave a typically solid performance as the gang associate Aaron Skerritt. Orlando Bloom, who was a then a hot property off the back of his work in The Lord of the Rings, is his typical Orlando Blando self. Naomi Watts plays Ned Kelly’s love interest and is wasted, as is Geoffrey Rush.
The disc is fairly barebones, but includes a decent EPK making-of that covers some of the cinematic history of Kelly on screen.