Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003)
One every week or two, I sort my Netflix queue by average rating and grab something from the bottom five. I usually get a good time out of it—if the entire Netflix community hates it, then by golly, there must be something good about it! I tried a variation on the theme last week—since my queue had exactly 330 movies in it, I went to movie #165, right smack in the middle. That turned out to be Gregor Jordan’s 2003 biopic Ned Kelly, one of the Heath Ledger movies I can imagine myself ever sitting through (as much as I love Heath Ledger, sorry, A Knight’s Tale will never pass these eyes) that I’d never seen, so I hit play and settled in for what Netflix’s myriad users promised me was going to be a perfectly average time. I think the movie is a touch better than average, but most of its problems are overlookable.
If you’re unfamiliar with Australian history (and I will be the first to admit I am nowhere near familiar enough with it to tell you how much of this Jordan got right and how much he made up out of whole cloth), Ned Kelly (Ledger) was a nineteenth-century outlaw/folk hero, which took some doing given Australia’s beginnings as a prison colony; how bad do you have to be to get branded an outlaw in the Manhattan of Escape from New York? As the story opens, we see Kelly getting rousted by the law for stealing a horse. (We don’t know if he did or not—Kelly’s acquisition of said horse, which he claims he found roaming free, takes place the day before the opening sequence. I may be over-reading, but I believe Jordan’s intention was for us to believe Kelly is telling the truth here.) Things escalate from there through the first roughly half-hour of the film, culminating in one of Ned’s brothers getting into a firefight with the law, which is then blamed on Ned (who wasn’t even in the house at the time). Ned’s mother is thrown in prison as a way to get Ned to turn himself in; instead, Ned, his brother Dan (Boy Eats Girl‘s Laurence Kinlan), and their respective best friends Joseph Byrne (Lord of the Rings franchise mainstay Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (The Escapist‘s Philip Barantini), form an outlaw band, base themselves in the wilderness, and start robbing banks. This turns out to be a relatively easy way of making money in rural Australia, and before long, Ned Kelly is sending goading letters to the cops—in one memorable scene from the movie, partially using verbiage supplied him by the “hostages” the Kelly Gang have taken in the bank, all of whom are enthusiastic supporters by the time they leave—and transforming from “armed and dangerous” to “can I have your autograph?”. However, the law is unamused, and calls in Francis Hare (Quills‘ Geoffrey Rush), notorious for his strong-arm tactics with lawbreakers.
It’s a fun little thing, though it feels like, given that it’s a docudrama, it should have more weight behind it. It also feels like a good deal got left on the cutting-room floor (Naomi Watts’ character, who exists in order to provide a romantic subplot, seems like she got a lot more screen time in earlier cuts of the movie), but that could simply be because Jordan is so obsessed with Heath Ledger. Which is understandable; Heath Ledger never encountered a camera that didn’t fall in love with him, though that tendency does give folks who end up in movies with him short shrift. It almost feels like the camera is snubbing Bloom in a couple of scenes here. I found that, well, kind of amusing actually. Your mileage will probably vary. Ned Kelly is a good movie, but it feels like it could have been a great one. ***