Short Life, Long Film
When it comes to depicting the mythic figures of history, there are two broad approaches taken by filmmakers.
One can aim for a hyper-real accuracy, as Michael Mann did in Ali (2001), to the point of exactly restaging the visual documentation of newsreels, photos, interviews and so on.
Or one can take full poetic license, filtering the bare outline of historic record through the trends and obsessions of the present day, as Ken Russell did in his many biopics of great composers.
Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly is never entirely factual or fanciful. It has become standard journalistic practice to mock Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970) starring Mick Jagger, but that film combined verisimilitude and pop culture energy admirably. By contrast, this new version of the Kelly legend, adapted by Irish writer John McDonagh from Robert Drewe's book Our Sunshine, fails to find its footing.
The principal details of the familiar tale are, of course, present and accounted for: the childhood of Ned (Heath Ledger), his gang members including Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom), the harassment of his sister Kate (Kerry Condon), the betrayal by Aaron Sherritt (Joel Edgerton), the dictation of the Jerilderie letter, the shootout at Glenrowan. Many renditions of the story add a touch of romance missing from this outline, so here Ned is given a lofty lover, Julia (Naomi Watts).
The conception of Julia's character offers a key to what goes wrong in this film. Rather than placing Ned firmly in his social milieu, the movie entertains an odd upstairs-downstairs fantasy, as it also does in the amusing scene involving Mrs Scott (Rachel Griffiths) and her attraction to these "beastly" bushrangers.
It is as if the film is straining to remove Ned from the rather grim world that created and shaped him – to give him an elevated aura as hero. In this regard, much of Ned Kelly follows the stolid example of Mel Gibson's ponderous Braveheart (1995). Whereas Ned's mates are vulgar, earthbound, knockabout types who frequent brothels and crack jokes, the hero must at all times assume a stoic, dignified posture, framed against the horizon. Ledger seems very constrained by this conception of his character.
There are some good moments, such as the intercutting between Ned's speaking of the Jerilderie letter and its gob-smacked reception by the law. And Edgerton almost steals the show with his wonderful, offhand response to the accusation that he is bedding a thirteen-year-old girl: "I'm not superstitious". But this Ned Kelly has a strangely stately, contemplative, art-film veneer which rubs uneasily against its more boisterous, vigorous elements.
The moodiness of the movie has an oddly superficial, second-hand quality. Jordan has acknowledged his debt to the films of Terrence Malick. I counted dozens of homages to Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and especially The Thin Red Line (1998) – in the quiet voice-over narration, the many insert shots of animals and landscapes, the idyllic flashbacks to childhood, Oliver Stapleton's muted cinematography and Klaus Badelt's rather overwrought, heavily-used music. (Badelt was an arranger on Hans Zimmer's score for The Thin Red Line.)
But what is the point of this homage? Ned Kelly manages to be satisfying neither as rousing entertainment nor as an art movie. The meditative ambience seems to be laid over the movie to give it a weightiness it simply does not possess. Meanwhile, the action component stalls. For a bushranger epic, it is a frustratingly unphysical affair.
Ned Kelly has the same, crippling problem as many Australian productions. It simply does not have a central point of view or "take" on its subject matter. Its only guiding thread seems to be that Ned deserves to be regarded as a hero.
Many ideas are touched upon in passing – themes of class, loyalty, family, national identity (Irish versus English influences), and the "spirit of place". Jordan evokes different popular genres, such as the Western (in the shoot-outs), the gangster film (the bank robbery scenes) and the war movie (death amidst nature, the Thin Red Line touch once again). But nothing emerges as a driving interpretation of Kelly, his times, his legend or his legacy.
Much of the film remains tantalisingly underdeveloped. This is particularly so when we reach Kelly's status as a hero of the people. Where are these people? There are only a handful of scenes where we observe the reactions of ordinary folk to Ned, and these incidents are scarcely fleshed out. The dimension of Kelly as a media sensation (a topic well handled in Arthur Penn's classic Bonnie and Clyde ) is absent.
And as for the dark mutterings of Superintendent Hare (Geoffrey Rush) about the movement that Kelly has inspired, we are left none the wiser. One wonders whether the political dimension of the tale would have been tackled more frontally in Don Watson's script for a rival Kelly project, Fanatic Heart (planned to star Alex Dimitriades), or in Neil Jordan's mooted collaboration with Peter Carey on True History of the Kelly Gang.
Alas, in the cutthroat marketplace of commercial film, there is no room for alternative versions of the same myth at the one time.
MORE Jordan: Buffalo Soldiers
© Adrian Martin March 2003