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NED KELLY – Giving life to legend

Starring: Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, Joel Edgerton
Director: Gregor Jordan
Rated: M15+

BEGINNING as early as 1906, there have been several attempts to bring the story of Ned Kelly to life on the screen. Giving form to a legend is never easy, as director Tony Richardson and Mick Jagger discovered in 1970. But while this new film about Ned Kelly may not be the definitive version of Australia’s controversial anti-establishment hero for everyone, it is powerful and at times deeply moving.

Based on Robert Drewe’s book Our Sunshine, Ned Kelly is set in Victoria in the late 1870s, and begins with a youthful Ned (Heath Ledger) being accosted at gunpoint in the main street of town by a trooper who accuses him of stealing a horse.

Ned is hardened by four years in jail, but on release is determined to support his Irish Catholic mother and siblings, whose difficulty in eking a living from the land is compounded by harassment from the police.

Ned works as a farmhand for a wealthy English landowner (Nicholas Bell), and begins an affair with the man’s wife, Julia (Naomi Watts). But when a trooper assaults Ned’s sister Kate (Kerry Condon), he and his mother are charged with attempted murder.

This marks the beginning of Ned’s life as an outlaw, as forced to flee he forms a gang together with his young brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan), and his two friends Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom).

When news of their audacity and exploits spread, they provoke fear among the ruling Anglo-Protestant authorities that the gang’s popularity will spark a rebellion.

John Michael McDonogh has adapted Drewe’s book to the screen with great economy.

The film is prefaced with the tale of Ned having saved a boy from drowning whilst still at school. This episode, lyrical and dream-like, lays the foundation for the stark, visually dour but arresting story, which is told by Ned in elegiac voice-over narrative.

The story is recounted subjectively, through Ned’s own Irish Catholic eyes. Thus those who look to the film for strict, historical accuracy may be disappointed.

Gregor Jordan’s direction is generally fresh and assured, while Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly is impressive and believable, acting with charm and necessary authority.

The shootout at Glenrowan, in which the members of the Kelly gang don their armour for the first time is graphic but realistic, while Geoffrey Rush paints an enigmatic, memorable portrait of the gang’s nemesis, Lieutenant Hare.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Naomi Watts as Julia, whose lightweight character was either underwritten or miscast.

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