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Ned Kelly

(2004) *** R
109 min. Focus Features. Director: Gregor Jordan. Cast: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, Laurence Kinlan.

This appropriately dour, stolid biopic of Irish-Australian folk anti-hero Edward "Ned" Kelly supplants the ridiculed Mick Jagger version--also titled Ned Kelly--by adapting Robert Drewe's historical novel Our Sunshine. As with the legend of Gregorio Cortez, the facts of Ned Kelly's life are somewhat in dispute and certainly ripe for exaggeration by excitable storytellers. Screenwriter John Michael McDonagh and director Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers)--single-minded to a fault--make Kelly a highly sympathetic martyr to colonial English corruption, but they do so in a low-key, insinuating manner much more historically credible (and for many, more palatable) than the entertaining bombast of the Braveheart school.

Heath Ledger, an Australian boy himself, plays Kelly with a grim determination to honor his family and his working class kin. After a much-disputed imprisonment for horse theft, Kelly vows to stay out of trouble, but events conspire against him: when a policeman's ego is wounded by the Kelly clan, the family faces a run of harassment capped by a trumped-up charge of attempted murder which puts Kelly on the run and his widowed ma behind bars. Orlando Bloom plays the first lieutenant of the Kelly Gang, a Robin Hood and his Merrie Men outfit which redistributes wealth in social protest; Ledger's real-life gal Naomi Watts plays Kelly's love interest, the wife of an English landowner.

Geoffrey Rush is overqualified to play Superintendent Francis Hare, Kelly's Javert, but Ned Kelly is more about story than character. The depiction of Kelly may not be nuanced enough for those who lean toward characterizing him more as a criminal than a hero (McDonagh movingly recounts a heroic gesture in Kelly's boyhood as emblematic of his purity of character), but the story's general restraint of hype is admirable. The actors do fine work, the photography is handsome and the action genuine; Jordan maintains a low hum of interest. Outside of Australia, Ned Kelly isn't liable to set anyone's world on fire, but those who embrace the story's archetypes of injustice will find the film tastefully compelling. Perhaps the best that can be said of a film like Ned Kelly--and indeed it can be said--is that it entices the viewer to learn more about the man who is its subject.

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