Posted on 6/25/12 09:41 PM
Perhaps It Comes of Having Been a Penal Colony
The Wikipedia article about Ned Kelly, herein played by Heath Ledger, makes for some interesting reading. The movie mostly correlates to Kelly's own version of events--mostly--but of course, there's no reason to assume that his was the most accurate telling. The Wikipedia article mostly cites period sources--and reads like one. It may not quite be in line with their usual standards, but you have to love any article which informs you that "After this episode the outlaws retired to sleep." In fact, I half-believe that most of the article is in fact plagiarized from old articles, because the language is so stilted. There are also a few places where there are unnecessary italics which would be fully in keeping with an article written more than a hundred years ago. I suspect the whole thing has amused more than one Australian grade school teacher who read it when a student plagiarized Wikipedia for their report.
The Kelly family lived in Victoria in those long-ago days, though why the late Red Kelly was transported, no one seems entirely sure. Consensus seems to be that he stole a couple of pigs. Well, Ireland in those days was no fun. And being poor and Irish in Victoria of the 1870s wasn't much fun, either. (Descriptions of what happened will, in this paragraph, be strictly what happened in the movie.) While his eldest son, Ned, may have been a bit of a troublemaker, the police also seem to have had it in for him. He got three years' hard labour for stealing a horse, which he merely caught for a man who claimed to own it. He didn't--but "Wild" Wright (Russell Dykstra) served eighteen months for the theft, certainly not fair. The Kellys also had problems with various of the local policemen, culminating in a fight at the Kelly house. Mrs. Kelly (Kris McQuade) is arrested for attempted murder, which causes Ned to go on a rampage because the police will not let him trade himself for his mother's freedom.
The whole thing is a bit Bonnie-and-Clyde, in the sense that Bonnie and Clyde were vicious thugs who have been romanticized ever since their crime spree. I don't dispute that, from just glancing over the Wikipedia page, it seems as though Ned Kelly got a raw deal from the Victoria police. There are several occasions described where he was arrested simply because he'd been arrested before, or where someone got a lighter sentence for a worse crime, which all makes it look as though someone there had it in for him. Though probably not then-premier Graham Berry (Charles "Bud" Tingwell)--yes, really, and the man had some epic facial hair. Geoffrey Rush also plays Superintendent Francis Hare as a man doing a job, not like various of the other police characters who want the glory of bringing in the notorious outlaw band. However, the portrayal of Ned Kelly as a man driven to the edge to protect his family doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
He is, of course, a national folk hero in Australia, which is the other way he compares to Bonnie and Clyde, Billy the Kid, or what have you. All four have been portrayed as fighting against the banks and the evil forces of government to protect the Little Guy, and in no case is it really true. This movie has a touching scene wherein Ned and Joseph Byrne (Orlando Bloom) burn up a bunch of mortgage papers so that the bank won't know who owes them how much. This is, of course, completely ridiculous on at least two levels. Yes, Ned did refuse to steal a man's watch at one of the burglaries--but he was also the one to initially ask for it, and the only reason he didn't take it was that the victim's mother had given it to him. The movie cobbles together a romance for Ned with Julia Cook (Naomi Watts), who as far as I can tell isn't even a historical figure. She is there to represent the English landowners--ironically enough, mostly opposed in the Victorian government by Premiere Berry.
Oh, it's a pretty enough movie, and that's just its leads. Geoffrey Rush is in it, though only just barely. The Australian countryside gets considerably more air time and is scenic as always. (And this isn't the desperate dry heat of much of the continent; there's actually water here.) The final shootout is one of the most ludicrous ever committed to film; I would really like someone to explain what the lion is doing there. But the movie spends so much time romanticizing its main character that it doesn't really do anything with him, much less his costars. About the only notable thing they do with Orlando Bloom's character is make him speak Chinese. Impressive enough, to be sure, but not enough to sustain interest. I now watch movies like this with a mild sense of regret, because I learned what Heath Ledger was capable of, and it was more than this. The story of Ned Kelly deserves a better treatment than this, too; it's a shame the two didn't match up, because the Australian film industry lost its chance there.