Ned Kelly, bushranger, outlaw and folk hero, has become one of the most mythical figures in Australian history. His iconic status hasn’t dimmed over the years either. Sidney Nolan portrayed him as an armoured warrior and the legend has burned brightly ever since. The real Ned Kelly was the son of an Irish convict father who was born in Victoria in 1855 and was hanged in Melbourne in 1880, despite a petition with 32,000 signatures. In the last 10 years of his life he roamed the Victorian countryside stealing whatever he could and was later romanticised as a sort of Irish freedom fighter-cum-Robin Hood. Much has been written about him, of course, and there have been previous films as well, notably Tony Richardson’s 1970 romp which starred Mick Jagger as Ned. Incidentally, Richardson, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991, was a member of the British New Wave filmmakers of the late 50s-early 60s and had already won an Academy Award for Tom Jones before he embarked on his version of the legend of Ned Kelly which flopped at the box-office.

This latest version of Ned Kelly’s life is directed by Gregor Jordan, who made a name for himself with his debut feature, Two Hands, also a take on criminality if you like. John Michael McDonagh, an Irish director who has yet to make a feature film, read Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine and was inspired to write a treatment and send it to Jordan who was in London doing the post-production on his second feature film, Buffalo Soldiers. Those who have read Robert Drewe’s book will realise that it is a fictional story based on the historical facts of Ned’s short life. It is also a lyrical, metaphysical novel largely dealing with what went on inside Ned Kelly’s head. Not an easy concept to transfer to the screen, so Jordan decided he had to bring more orthodox elements into the story and this, ultimately, has turned a film that could have been a refreshing new take on Kelly’s life into a very straight, ordinary story of a man portrayed as a folk hero of almost saintly proportions.

Heath Ledger plays an energetic, eminently charismatic Ned Kelly who, despite the privations of years in gaol and a life eating wombat in an isolated bush hut, looks physically robust and has the most perfect skin and teeth ever seen on the screen. He does have dirty hands and a beard though, and I suppose that is what counts. Orlando Bloom (The Lord Of The Rings) is well cast as Joe Byrne, Kelly’s loyal friend and offsider. For authenticity, Jordan cast several Irish and English stage actors in supporting roles as Dan Kelly, Kate Kelly and Steve Hart. Geoffrey Rush plays an odd Superintendent of Police, Kris McQuade has a small role as Mother Kelly and Rachel Griffiths has a cameo as a banker’s wife to provide light relief. One of the biggest drawbacks in the film is the casting of Naomi Watts as a fictional love interest. This laughable subplot is purely a device to pull a certain audience and detracts from the tenor and sensibility of the film.

Oliver Stapleton’s (The Shipping News) cinematography, using skip bleaching, is suitably moody and succeeds in detracting from the usual, over-romanticised view of the Australian landscape. German composer Klaus Badelt’s (The Thin Red Line) score is sensitive and appropriate.

Ned Kelly is watchable and the shootout between the bushrangers and police at Glenrowan is of heroic proportions. It is a shame that a film based on a book which transcends the myth of the man has been reduced to just another straightforward story which provides no insights into the real character that lay within the legend.

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