Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly

How smug is this photo? I would say 'very' or at least 'somewhat'

dir: Gregor Jordan

Australia has a long and varied history of making movies its own citizens hate. Most countries obviously have their own film industries, none which match the economies of scale available to US production, or the rapid fire super cheap production levels of countries like India or Hong Kong. Australia makes comparatively less films than most industrialised countries, but is at least to my mind unique in that the main hurdle its films have to first traverse and generally stumble over is the idea of ‘cultural cringe’ and the antipathy of the local audience. Antipathy means more than just not giving a fat rat’s arsehole: it’s active dislike.

There’s a better and more expansive explanation out there for everything that cultural cringe entails. Essentially, it refers to the concept that representations of Australia and Australians are uniquely unpalatable to domestic audiences, and generally found to be embarrassing or, more obviously, cringeworthy. Some say it has to do with the explicit anti-intellectualism of mainstream Australian society, others point to the perception that, apart from being generally badly made, the way Australians are portrayed in our own films is hokey, parochial and distorted, rendering characters into nothing more than risible caricatures.

Perversely, some of the most successful Australian films are ones that represent exactly those ‘salt of the earth’ anti-intellectual characteristics which otherwise provoke derision. Crocodile Dundee still represents the biggest success an Australian film has ever managed. Less annoying examples, such as The Castle and The Dish also utilised this type of characterisation, but to a less painful degree. This reliance on and simultaneous aversion to these True Blue stereotypes, if nothing else show how perilous the state of local film-making truly is.

There is little if any critical crossover between good reviews and box office success with local films. The most praised films often remain unwatched entirely except by possibly the people that reviewed the films. The films that win local awards also remain by and large unwatched by the unwashed masses. In recent years this trend has been beaten by very few films, such as Rabbit Proof Fence and Lantana. So by and large Aussie films go unwatched and unlamented even in their own neighbourhood. Recent award-winning Aussie film Japanese Story was probably watched by the people that made it, and their friends and family, and few other people.

Aussie films don’t make that much money at the Australian box office. The most a successful film can be expected to make is a figure that wouldn’t cover the weekly cocaine expenses of your average Hollywood executive. As an example, in 2003, the biggest box office earner in Aus was Finding Nemo, at about 40 million. In the top 50 films for last year, the only Australian one to make it onto the list was Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly made 8 million dollars in its country of origin. It’s a piddling amount of money in the scheme of things, but it’s a big haul for an Aussie flick. The only reason for this is the power that the name ‘Ned Kelly’ holds for Australians still, to this day. I find it perplexing, personally, but I shouldn’t.

Based on the novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe, a man who’s made a career out of imitating Australia’s most critically acclaimed Nobel Laureate and most annoying writer Patrick White, Gregor Jordan’s film tells the sorry tale of Ned Kelly’s life and death. Ned Kelly’s legend, like the legends of most criminals that become folk heroes, holds the power to energise debate and to inflame passions. To some he is a hero who fought against police brutality and corruption, who stuck up for himself and his family whilst being persecuted for being Irish. To others he’s just some crim who killed some cops and ended up getting what he deserved.

Britain has its tales of Robin Hood, and stories of noble highwaymen like the adventures of Dick Turpin; the States has Jesse James and of course William H Bonney “Billy the Kid”, France had, I believe, The Scarlet Pumpernickel. Almost every culture has its noble outlaw archetypes, throughout history they have always appealed to the popular imagination.

It’s Romantic, you see. Not ‘romantic’, as in fluffy toys, heart-shaped candies and women acting like stoned 12 year old girls, but big “R” Romantic, as in Jean Jacques Rousseau. The concept of the noble outlaw savage running amuck and contravening the laws of artificial and unnatural society appeals to people tremendously, whether any of that philo-masophical stuff matters to them or not.

The individual thumbing his or her nose at society, at the law, at politesse and etiquette, what’s not to like? And of course they are forced by injustice or circumstance to adopt this life, never by choice or simply for crass greed do they take this path with its inevitable terminus at the gallows or le guillotine.

Ned Kelly still has resonance for Australians, a great deal of symbolic attraction and appeal. The actual circumstances of his life, as with all these criminals that become folk heroes, are secondary to the legend itself. Kelly represents the rebellious spirit which people would like to believe still resides in the essential Australian character. Of course this is the kind of twaddle that’s meaningless but gives people something to stroke themselves into a patriotic frenzy over, like hearing their national anthem played on a synthesiser or seeing one of their sporting heroes draped in their national flag running past beer advertisements.

Gregor Jordan’s version, which stars a surprisingly moneyed-up cast, being Heath Ledger as Ned, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts and Geoffrey Rush had the chance to be the definitive version, telling the real story to a young generation eager to find out why he’s so important in the scheme of things. It fails miserably.

Recalling little more than a cheaper and as deeply flawed Australian version of Gangs of New York, the film puts a distinctly unbelievable actor in the main role, and has a plot and a method of scene progression that drags down the story to an unendurable degree. Where it starts off with promise, from a cinematographic point of view, passed the halfway mark the film gets so bogged down in its own confusion that it squanders whatever goodwill it may have engendered.

Ledger isn’t right for the role, it becomes patently clear as the film goes on, though not from the outset. He’s not as bad as Mick Jagger in the 70s version, but he’s no Ned Kelly. There’s something grotesquely difficult about accepting someone as young and girlish as Heath in the role towards the end of the film. It’s not Ledger’s age per se that’s the problem, it’s that he simply isn’t convincing in the role. I didn’t believe for a second that Ledger was anything but an actor poorly portraying a character. The ‘potato famine’ accent doesn’t help either. I know they were going for greater authenticity by having Kelly and his clan speak in Irish accents so broad other Irish people would be saying “what the fuck are they on about?”, but somehow it all lacks credibility. Speaking of girlish men Orlando Bloom plays Kelly’s best mate Joe Byrne, again unconvincingly.

Naomi Watts in a thankless role plays some married woman who really digs Ned. She contributes little more than that. It’s the classic example of adding a female character to a story that doesn’t ultimately require it so that no-one will suspect that the lead character is gay. Of course that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong about that. I suspect the only real reason she’s in it is because she and Heath were a couple at film’s making, thus they wanted to work and hang out at the same time. Other than that it’s hardly going to be highlighted on her resume.

Geoffrey Rush plays supercop Francis Hare, and plays it pretty much exactly the same way he played Inspector Javert in one of the recent Les Miserables remakes. He’s in it only for brief moments, and thus lacks enough time for his presence to matter to the film or to overact too much, which is a shame.

The story starts off well enough, establishing the Kellys and their place in this early time in Australian history. It also shows how unfairly Ned and his boys are persecuted by the prejudiced, moronic troopers. At this time in Australia’s history, as in the histories of most young nations, the police force act more as a goon squad of hired muscle doing the bidding of the powers that be with little consideration or care as to the idea of justice or the letter of the law.

In this the troopers are either stupid, bored or motivated by wounded pride. As such they keep persecuting the Kellys and their friends until circumstances go too far. In this version of events all the Kellys are as pure as driven snow, not even capable of even thinking of crimes let alone committing them. Pure, chaste and so intensely virginal you’d think they were all going to line up for their First Communion wearing white and singing Alleluias.

Entirely blameless for what follows, the Kelly Gang are virtually forced into a life of Robin Hoodesque crime, not by greed or laziness, but by necessity. What else is a poor Irish boy being persecuted by the cops going to do? I know I feel like taking down a bank or two every time the coppers look at me funny, and I’m not even vaguely Irish. Except of course for my deep love of Kilkenny, Guiness and whisky.

Thus follows a dull, but beautifully filmed two year crime spree which makes the papers even as far away as England, where the posh and prim are scandalised by the Aussie / Irish rogues. The story goes so far as to represent the building of the legend as early as when they’re actually still on the scene, which seems somewhat far-fetched to me. As far as the Empire is concerned they’ve only recently found out that we have electricity down here, I can only imagine what it was like in the late 1900s when this is set.

Over the course of his travels the film shows some sort of relationship between Ned and a married woman called Julia Cook (played by Naomi Watts). She is a complete fabrication in that not only did Kelly not have a relationship with her in real life, but she inconveniently didn’t even have the decency to exist.

Comparing the substantial amount of other details that are flat our wrong is kind of pointless. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was a remotely enjoyable film, but it’s not. It does a generally okay job sticking to the basic details (as in dates etc.) but lacks the very feeling of veracity that it was going for, even with all the stupid accents and beards and such.

As the film bogs down during its stagger towards the finish line, the script keeps trying to make Kelly not just some folkloric hero of times past, but some kind of speechifying inspirer of the common people. Which is why all these inexplicable speeches start cropping up, where Ledger is unfortunately called upon to give us his equivalent impression of Kenneth Branagh in Henry V doing the St Crispin’s Day speech. And badly, I might add.

Speaking of the bizarre at the same time as the Gang are getting cornered by the troopers, they hook up with a circus full of carnie folk, the sole purpose of which seems to be to add colour to the inevitable march to the grave. What it adds is perplexity, as in you have an audience not believing it and not caring. And what the hell were elephants doing there?

The famous Glenrowan siege where the Gang finally met their match is all muddled up and drained of its power. Whether it’s an accurate reflection of what happened or not, it acts as more a relief that the film will soon be over than as the sad last moments of the infamous Kelly Gang. I must admit to being somewhat glad that it was all going to end.

A lost opportunity without doubt, but perhaps it’s not really that good a story in the first place. Honestly, there are no shortage of similar stories, whether fictional or not, and they are interesting dependant on whether they’re well done on the screen. I mean think of the great older films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, most decent Westerns, even Bonnie and Clyde. The actual circumstances of their lives and deaths aren’t as interesting as the path taken there and how it’s represented.

But this was supposed to be a uniquely Australian entry into the field. I find myself cringing at the thought that the film is screening overseas at the moment, because we certainly could have done much better. Were it not starring Ledger and Watts I doubt it would have even turned up on video overseas, let alone with a limited release in cinemas.

Director Gregor Jordan and Heath Ledger certainly weren’t able to make me care about this character, regardless of whether it was a true story or not. It proves, if nothing else that even heroic legends can make for fucking boring films.

2 times I wish they’d let the goddamn legend die out of 10