The 19th century has been the setting for many recent movies from westerns like Open Range and The Missing to historical epics like Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai. Many acclaimed directors have explored this period and the simplicity of life during that time. Ned Kelly pleasantly surprises by being on a par with those movies, but owing more to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, two other movies that showed how a man rebels against the authorities. Few movies have documented this era in Australian history, so the class struggle between the wealthy British in power and the poor Irish creates a refreshing background for Kelly’s story. It’s easy to draw parallels to the more recent political situation in Northern Ireland when you realize how far back in history that conflict reaches.
Director Gregor Jordan’s last film, Buffalo Soldiers, was an underrated dark comedy about corrupt Army soldiers stationed in Germany during the late 80’s. Ned Kelly is odd in that it glorifies a criminal, so there is little gray area of who the heroes and who the villains are. Even when Kelly kills police officers, the movie twists it to make it look strictly like self-preservation. Whether the movie is historically accurate might be questionable as Kelly is turned into a sympathetic character so that viewers might understand why the impoverished Irish community took him to heart and rallied around his crimes. (One might even argue that the attitude of the populace is due to Australia originally being colonized and settled by British outlaws and exiles.)
Ledger gives a surprisingly good performance in what must have been a difficult role, creating a likeable and sympathetic character despite Kelly’s grim demeanor, which may come across as a bit stiff. In his hands, Kelly becomes a complex character that is gruff one moment and flippant the next, but most of all, we’re made privy to the resolve with which he faced his foes while trying to clear his name.
The romance between Kelly and the wife of a wealthy British man, played by Ledger’s real life girlfriend Naomi Watts, is played down compared to other period pieces. It’s used more to give a possible alibi for Kelly, which of course, can’t be used without revealing their adulterous affair. Although their scenes together are minimal, the chemistry between them is immediately evident without being overplayed.
Fans of Disney’ Pirates of the Caribbean will enjoy seeing two of its cast in similar roles here. Orlando Bloom is just as charming and likeable as Kelly’s right hand man, bringing a wink and a smile to even the worst situation, including an amusing sequence with “Six Feet Under” star Rachel Griffiths, as the wife of a bank manager who allows herself to be seduced by Bloom’s suave bank robber. Likewise, Geoffrey Rush always plays a great villain, and his police superintendent sworn to take down the outlaws by any means necessary is no exception.
Beyond the story and cast, the visually stimulating film wins points for Jordan’s ability to bring this aspect of Australian life and history to the screen. Much of this can be attributed to cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton, who has worked with Lasse Hallstrom and Julien Temple. The scope of his camera captures all of the beauty of Australia’s outback in a way equal to great historic epics with many of the visuals looking like something from a classic Western. The music, ably selected by About a Boy music supervisor Nick Angel, plays a large part in recreating the feel of the era, much like it did with Cold Mountain and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It adds so much to the movie’s quieter moments.
The only major problem with the movie is that you feel like you’re coming into the story midway. Not enough of the previous history between Kelly, his father and the police is given as the beginning of the movie, so you feel like there are missing pieces that are necessary to solve the puzzle. For instance, we learn that when he was younger, Kelly saved another boy from drowning, earning him a special honor. This is vaguely referred to during the opening credits, but it’s never clarified until much later in the movie. It’s one of those important bits of information that could have solidified Kelly’s heroic nature and made the character more immediately sympathetic when he is wrongly accused.
Other than that, the movie is fun to watch as the Kelly gang takes on the overwhelming odds. As the hundreds of police close in on the gang, the mounting tension leads to a climactic shootout as the gang takes a stand, wearing full body armor of their own design. It’s one of those classic movie moments so vibrant and memorable that anyone bored with the film up to that point will instantly be drawn into it.
The Bottom Line:
Ned Kelly opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 26th, with an expansion throughout the reset of the country in April.