Beyond every shifting guise appropriated by the late Heath Ledger there exists the bittersweet temptation to look back with poignancy, to ponder the creative heights all too briefly scaled. In Ned Kelly, Australia’s most notorious outlaw and anti-hero of legendary proportions, Ledger communed with a kindred spirit, a man who would sacrifice everything to erase the besmirching of his family’s name. And like Ledger, Ned too was a man destined to perish at a tragically premature age.
Gregor Jordan’s film is undoubtedly the most polished and dramatically satisfying re-tread of the Kelly story, offering a welcome balance of drama and portraiture of a necessarily self-serving nature. And despite the presence of Naomi Watts as the fictional, designated love interest – the girl who fancies Ned but can offer no alibi for fear of disgrace - she’s wisely kept to the margins, saving the drama from being cheapened by populist expectations.
The film begins with an oblique shot, later revealed to be Ned’s proudest moment when, aged 10, he saved another boy from drowning. We’re then transplanted to 1871 as a young Ned has his first brush with the law, accused of stealing a horse. From there his struggles and those of his family - with whom troubles with the law have been commonplace – are etched in broad, persuasive strokes. Ned himself is a brawler, earning money with his fists, but just as he’s about to move on, a fateful night intervenes.
Whilst engaged in a tryst with the English girl (Watts), who exists far beyond his social strata, a lily-livered copper with a personal grudge against Ned, Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), visits the Kellys only to leave with a whipping from Ned’s family and friends. But the battle lines are drawn as Fitzpatrick sets his false story in motion: Mrs. Kelly (Kris McQuade) is taken into custody and the search for Ned and his gang begins. The police want their man and will adopt any means to track him down. Similarly, Ned must resort to reluctant bloodletting to avenge the injustice of his mother’s incarceration and there’s no going back once his bridges are burned. Reparations can no longer be considered, for “wasn’t it now war?” For his deeds, which included taking the lives of a few obstinate officers, Ned has a world record bounty placed on his head. But though seemingly everyone who’s ever known him is arrested, nobody gives up the ghost for the sake of the exorbitant sum - such was the high esteem in which Ned was held.
Ledger makes a first rate Kelly, convincingly conveying the basic decency of a man oppressed by the authorities: principled, loyal and resolute. His intermittent voiceover is employed to good effect too, like a ghostly reminder from beyond the grave of Ned’s ability to endure, to evoke heated dialogue about the legitimacy of his legacy more than a century later. The accents are a little dodgy, especially that employed by Orlando Bloom as Ned’s valiant offsider Joe Byrne, but it never hurts the tone established by Jordan and his cinematographer Oliver Stapleton who captures the sombre, almost colourless Victorian bushland with a discerning eye.
Big names like Watts and Geoffrey Rush as the staunch Superintendent recruited from South Africa to lead the hunt for Ned, become bit players for it’s the classic confrontation of the persecuted opposing the unjust that commands most attention. Yet for all the failings of the film to flesh out complementary sub-plots, it’s this adherence by screenwriter John Michael McDonagh to a universal ideal that provides the drama with the impetus it needs to rouse our emotions. Another vital ingredient is the score by Klaus Badelt who contributes possibly the finest of his career to date, other than the more sublime moments of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006). The main theme, in particular, is an appropriately stirring elegy, yet remains admirably understated in most incarnations, never overpowering the images.
Ned’s seething and defiance reach an emotive peak in the brief sampling of his Jerilderie Letter composition; there’s also a wonderfully doom-laden lead up to the final showdown, in which Ned and his gang face an army of officers in their armour-plated defence. Here, Ned’s narration devolves into bleak musings on his dire predicament as he, and the creatures surrounding him in the woods where he lies in wait, are reduced to elemental means of survival.
You could argue Jordan’s portrayal of Ned is perhaps a little too lopsided, a fact sure to be widely criticised beyond these shores. But reminders of Ned’s heroics, and the iconic imagery they evoke, have penetrated our cultural landscape to such an extent that anything less than a biased portrayal would be considered almost sacrilegious. Ned Kelly (2003), tinged with the morose inevitability of its outcome, is a worthy addition to a voluminous body of the work obsessed with affirming a reckless but revered Australian legend.