Starring Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton, Laurence Kinlan, Philip Barantini, Kerry Condon, Kris McQuade, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Rachel Griffiths.
A fictionalised version of the final ten years in the life of Australian folk hero and outlaw, Ned Kelly, this film by Gregor Jordan (Two Hands, Buffalo Soldiers) is a superb piece of storytelling and cinematography based on the lyrical novel “Our Sunshine” by Robert Drewe. Forced by police persecution into becoming outlaws, the Kelly gang survived by stealing horses and robbing banks and defended themselves by killing many of their police attackers. In the process, Ned Kelly became a people’s hero, epitomising the plight of the poor Irish farmer in 19th century Victoria, Australia.
While robbing banks, Ned tells the assembled bailed-up customers and bank staff of the injustice his family has suffered at the hands of the police. He gives hostages letters to the government detailing the actual course of events behind the non-existent offences for which they were charged. With equal measures of humour and outrage he tells the hostages that because of the Felons’ Apprehension Act, sanctioned by Queen Victoria, any one can shoot him dead without penalty, and earn an unheard-of ₤8,000 bounty. He pointedly leaves his pistol lying on the counter but no one takes up his challenge to turn bounty hunter. He burns farmers’ mortgages found in bank vaults and gives his spoils to the poor. After a siege at the Glenrowan Inn Ned was finally captured. He died in 1880 at the age of 25, hanged despite the signatures of 32,000 people on a petition pleading for his life.
The opening scenes show Ned as a 12 year-old, rescuing another boy from drowning while the adult Ned (Heath Ledger) is talking in his Irish brogue about how that day his father called him “Sunshine”. Five years later, in 1871, when Ned is unjustly accused of horse-theft and jailed for three years while the real culprit gets eighteen months, it epitomises all the Kellys’ interactions with the police. Ned’s intractability and rebellious Irish cheek are seen as threats to social stability and the authorities react as though the Kellys are the spearhead of a national anarchic movement.
After Ned is released he attempts to go straight, earning money in prizefights and as a horse farm hand, where he meets the beautiful English settler Julia Cook (Naomi Watts). The on-screen chemistry between Watts and Ledger is instant. Down-to-earth Julia is attracted to Ned as a kindred spirit as well as for his adept horse-handling skills, which are in stark contrast to the casual callousness of her husband. Later, Ned is illicitly with her when his sister Kate (Kerry Condon) repudiates the persistent advances of a certain Constable Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore). The Kelly clan’s defence of their sister in this so-called Fitzpatrick incident results in a retaliatory murder charge against Ned (though he was not there at the time), and incarceration of his mother Ellen. Ned goes bush with his young brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and two friends, Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (Philip Barantini).
Strong performances by Kris McQuade as the tough matriarch Ellen Kelly, and Kerry Condon and Emily Browning as Ned’s sisters Kate and Grace show a spirited, unified family responding to hardship and oppression with warmth and determined realism. The Kelly family sitting down to wombat stew in their bark hut is a scene which flows naturally but here and elsewhere it jars when the Kellys are shown as too-innocent victims. Plainly they were never saints, though the persecution they suffered was real. In the pub, hostility between the local constabulary (happening to avail themselves of the same public house) and the Kellys is evident, but as always, is instigated by belligerent police. And further, the first time the outlawed Ned kills a man in self-defence, his apologetic “I’m sorry I shot you” to the dead man and his shock at the blood, literally on his hands, assures us Ned is not a brutal man and therefore a hero we can respect. Ledger, however, elegantly shows Ned’s dry wit and dramatic sense in the scene where he has secured the bizarre assistance of the Great Orlando’s Travelling Circus prior to their ambush of the police at Glenrowan. In the pristine early morning a camel placidly plods down the main street, startling the sleepy stationmaster. Ned is behind him with his pistol and says matter-of-factly, “No, you’re not seein’ things. It’s a camel.” Above them the kookaburras erupt into laughter at the joke.
Acting and camerawork are both superb. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton brings the legend into each frame and captures the mood of the times and the locations of bush camps and towns with grimy texture and tangibility. Brief flashes of colourful birds of the bush, crimson rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras and tawny frogmouth owls put this drama in a wider perspective and contrast some brightness against what is essentially a somewhat bleak look to the film. More specific and impactful are the charred carcasses of wildlife after the police torch the bush to burn the outlaws out of hiding, and the blood of their slaughtered horses which the boys drink when they find the police have poisoned the waterholes. Later, the caged circus lion is an apt symbol for the attempt of society to curtail the liberty of a wild and free spirit.
Ledger gives an outstanding performance as the man whose presence and charisma inspired public admiration despite his outlaw status. Orlando Bloom personifies the attractive rogue women find irresistible. Scene-stealer Rachel Griffiths, as the banker’s wife who insists on changing her clothes on being held up in her home, bails Joe up more intimately in an upstairs room while downstairs the rest of the gang casually chat with the maid who went to school with Steve Hart. The humour is unforced, the comedy arising out of the natural course of events and providing relief in the ironic Irish way from the injustice and persecution the Irish settlers experienced at the time. Joel Edgerton is excellent and multi-dimensional as the hapless Aaron Sherritt, betrayed by the police and his own fear into betraying his friends. Another layered performance is by Geoffrey Rush as Superintendent Hare, who is perhaps the only one who appreciates that Ned Kelly is less the monster he is painted by the press than a resourceful opponent forced to develop the cunning of a rat. After all the violence of the Glenrowan siege, during which the four members of the Kelly gang, in iron armour and helmets, stand defiantly and impressively against the blazing guns of a hundred police, there is a quiet moment when Ned lies wounded. Hare’s almost timid words and actions show his respect.
Despite the slightly one-sided portrayal of the Kellys showing them as more sinned against than sinning, – which is not a factor in Drewe’s far more balanced book - the movie shows the story in a way that will probably please audiences outside Australia. The attraction of the Ned Kelly legend with its battle against injustice and police persecution is not uniquely Australian. Dearer to Australians and the Irish is the stand against the colonial rule of an English queen, the recognition of prejudice against early Irish settlers and the wholehearted fellow feeling for battlers and underdogs. Our popular heroes are usually disadvantaged, fight heroically, and fail valiantly against oppression and injustice. Our national identity seems to rest most comfortably with this, and with the irrepressibility of their kind.
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