Hollywood period pieces often come in two distinct versions, both populated by a generic cast that looks the part. Version one consists of the good (and good-looking) moraled hero/-ine leading a disadvantaged people against an ancient evil (à la The Thirteenth Warrior). This version is often completely fictitious, serving as a means to rope in audiences that still sleep with the light on. Meanwhile version two is reserved for blockbusters containing a thread of truth which allows it to masquerade as a history lesson.
In this second option, employed presently by Ned Kelly – with both generic decorum and to the delight of audiences – the good, moral man is pushed to immoral actions by a group of corrupt (and necessarily ugly) authority figures; against whom, swift and permanent revenge must then be levied (à la The Patriot, Robin Hood, and Braveheart). It is a well-worn formula and more fodder for the sugar-puffed syllabi of “Global History through Film” classes that have sprouted up in impoverished universities.
Knowing this, however, does not exclude entertainment. On the contrary, it near guarantees it. Provided, as it is in Ned Kelly, that the essential construct of sympathy is present and accounted for in the story’s delivery.
The film is the true story of Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang, who were victimized by circumstance, and became the most famous and revered outlaws in Australian history. By recounting the film’s opening sequence it’s easy to see why the second half of the flick is such a fun-filled vicarious romp. As legend has it, young Ned was an easy-natured lad, not in the least resembling his more violent father. Anybody could see this and everybody did. Everybody that is except the town’s crooked police, who viewed Ned with contempt predicated on fear. They assume he’s an animalis criminal just waiting to mature and so they treat him that way (totally unfair, no?). It doesn’t take more than a misunderstanding to find Ned imprisoned where his molten youth is hardened by the realities of federal lockdown (it’s just so typical, isn’t it?). To make matters worse, even after Ned has done his time without incident, the power-crazed police continue to step over his rights, going so far as to steal his horses and assault his lady friends (somebody should teach those cops a lesson, no?). Finally, when Ned’s friends retaliate one night, it’s Ned who is blamed (though he wasn’t even there!). The last straw occurs when Ned doesn’t turn himself in and the police decide to jail his mother and bully his family (those cops sure deserve what’s coming to them!).
This is twenty years of Ned’s life and only about 15 minutes of the film. Yet director Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers) is talented enough to orchestrate what your elders say won’t ever add up; he adds up two wrongs and makes them equal right. With that, the audience is free to enjoy the sweet burn of deserving vengeance by the hand of Ned. Without interference from our consciences, we see Ned dole out justice in the ways we say we would in moments if put in his place and it’s lovely. We believe in his heart. We relate to him and because of it, the gruesome action is satisfying to watch.
Heath Ledger, after earning his stripes in similar films like The Patriot and A Knights Tale is admirable in the lead as Ned. He lends the necessary coat of compassion and warmth to Ned’s character, one that remains even in violence, and by doing so displays an erstwhile absent ability to finely layer emotion. Though I must say that he and the rest of the gang – notably Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings films) – are well served by the adapted script by John McDonagh. He’s wise enough to recognize good prose when he sees it and thus, includes in Ned Kelly much of Robert Drewe’s language from the book Our Sunshine. A good work of non-fiction in it’s own right, the words of Our Sunshine (and by abstraction the film) are a bright reflection of Drewe’s own passionate Aussie mind. They lend a degree of lyricism to an otherwise mundane voice over narration.
The conveyor belt-like origin of this film (download the live wallpaper from your favorite films) is the only thing that keeps it out of the upper echelon of quality. For as much as I must admit I enjoyed Ned Kelly, it is still a unoriginal, formulaic work and my pen is obliged to flash from the scabbard. Ned Kelly is a guaranteed good time any day of the week. But before you go, ask yourself how you’ll feel in the morning. Maybe you’re better off dozing in front of the flickering tube.