Ned Kelly is a major folk hero in Australia, a kind of Irish-Aussie Jesse James whose fans exalt him for challenging the country's late-19th-century system of class-biased justice. He's been the subject of numerous stage plays, books, and movies, surely the oddest incarnation of which came in 1970 when the manly bushranger was impersonated on the big screen by wispy Mick Jagger.
Still, most Americans don't know Ned Kelly from Kelly Clarkson, and that might just as easily have been a good thing for Australian-born director Gregor Jordan.
We don't, for example, know if Jordan's "Ned Kelly" is really too reverential or just seems one-sided because the abuses of power were so blatant in Kelly's era. Most of us can't say whether Jordan's is the truest or most artful presentation of the legend -- though it seems easily among the darkest -- and we certainly aren't in a position to quibble with his domestically controversial choices regarding character accents or period dress. In short, back home Jordan's adaptation of Robert Drewe's novel, "Our Sunshine," has to live up to expectations, whereas here in the United States, it only has to be entertaining -- something you would expect with young guns Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom in the cast, not to mention Geoffrey Rush and Ledger's on-again, off-again girlfriend Naomi Watts.
But Jordan is a director who often confounds. His last literary adaptation, "Buffalo Soldiers," fired off comic shots in so many counterproductive directions, it blew itself to pieces. And in "Ned Kelly," working from a script by John Michael McDonagh, Jordan very nearly lets pointless distractions eclipse his title character.
How many times, for example, do we need close-ups of birds, trees, and other flora and fauna to extrapolate messages about freedom and coexistence? Must the mood and landscape be so bleak that the director literally resorts to bringing in a circus to lighten things (and thus ratchet up the impending horror) in the final act? It's as if these characters are part of an arms-length National Geographic special, brought no closer by crescendoing music and unintelligible dialogue.
Locked in constipated grimace, Ledger plays Ned -- once a hero for rescuing a drowning boy, but now an angry young man falsely imprisoned for horse stealing and forever hounded by the uniformly despicable Victorian police. When one of the enforcers makes unwanted advances on his sister, Ned is again wrongly accused of a crime, and goes on the lam in the company of his brother (Laurence Kinlan) and two friends (Bloom and Philip Barantini). The Kelly Gang's campaign of revenge and rebellion, including bank robberies and indignant diatribes, eventually prompts the dispatch of a high-ranking officer (Rush, making the most of a limited role) to squash the young upstarts before things get too far out of hand.
Watts plays a married love interest, added to the legend as a way of softening scruffy Ned, and as silly as her character is in this mix, she at least provides some much-needed heat. Even better in that department is Rachel Griffiths's cameo as a holdup victim titillated by her captors.
Folk heroes frequently get lost in the translation to film (see "Michael Collins"), but few films lose their focus as deliberately as this one. Ultimately, Jordan's vision is so murky that Ned Kelly remains as foreign to us as wombat stew.
Janice Page can be reached at email@example.com.
Directed by: Gregor Jordan
Written by: John Michael McDonagh
Based on a novel by Robert Drewe
Starring: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush,Naomi Watts
At: Dedham Community Theatre
Running time: 110 minutes
Rated: R (violence, brief nudity)