Ned Kelly (2004)


It seemed like a good idea at the time. Team up two foreign heartthrobs and the girls will flock to the theatre in droves.  Too bad it didn't work out that way. A movie with a lot of potential that fails to live up to it, Ned Kelly is a romanticized look at one of Australia's most infamous outlaws. Born to an Irish family long under the scrutiny of the law, Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger) is accused of stealing a postman's horse and thrown into jail for three years, despite having not committed the crime. While imprisoned his family are persecuted by local corrupt authorities.


When Ned finally gets out of prison, he hooks up with his best friend Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and other youthful Irish rapscallions. Determined to turn around the black mark on the family name, he takes a respectable position on a local horse ranch as a hand, and gains the interest of the owner's beautiful young English wife Julia (Naomi Watts). One evening shortly before he's to be laid off, a wisecracking local lawman comes to the house to take advantage of Ned's younger sister. They turn him out on his ear while Ned is up at the stables getting acquainted with Julia. Infuriated with his refusal, the lawman informs his friends in town that Ned Kelly tried to kill him. To avoid arrest, Ned, Joe, and their future gang take to the hills, only to learn that Ned's mother has been imprisoned for the crime. Furious with the rampant prejudice against Irish families, the notorious bad boys start taking revenge one step at a time, starting with bank robbing and as their names become infamous throughout the territories, the stakes get higher until Queen Victoria puts her foot down. She sends lawman Frances Hare (Geoffrey Rush) to clean up the mess, but what he doesn't realize is that these boys aren't loathed by those in the community ... most of the landowners would do anything to protect them!


Where the film fails is pacing. It delivers enough in emotional backlash by the conclusion, in which the viewer finds themselves weeping tears over the fallen "heroes" of this story -- in truth rebellious bank thieves who "had no choice" in the matter. It's not a very flattering portrayal of Australian officials during the 1800's and implies that all lawmen are scum. Given that we're siding with villains this is understandable but as a result all of the opposing individuals are completely one-sided. They're scoundrels but we don't know why. In addition the screenplay is very poorly written in many respects. If you still don't know who is who, or whether or not Julia is the man's wife or his sister, niece, cousin, etc., within the first half hour, it's difficult to sort out names and faces afterward. A more carefully constructed plot would have benefited it a great deal, but when the movie does succeed it's very impacting and dramatic. No doubt fans of the cast will appreciate it just for the reason of seeing a crop of very talented actors play off one another.


One of the most disturbing things about this film is its morbid fascination with death. It's not enough to see men gunned down in cold blood just because they're lawmen and happened to camp in the wrong part of the woods, we also have to see animals killed. A horse is slain so that the starving outlaws might drink its blood (in a grotesque dark sequence). A hawk picks at the entrails of a rabbit. Wild boars are shown roasted and steaming after a forest fire. Blood drips from a cage where the still form of a lion lies. A monkey is picked off by a bullet in a crossfire. Numerous people are shot and killed, sometimes in the head with gory results. Men brawl in a boxing match and come to a fistfight. Kelly shoots a lawman that he knows, the man is badly wounded and choking on his own blood. Rather than let him suffer, Kelly kills him. Two of the gang members commit suicide rather than be burned alive. Joe is forced to murder his best friend for betrayal. 


There's no outright sexual content but a lot of implied liaisons. Joe is a ladies' man. He comes on to married banker's wife after being told to keep an eye on her while she changes into more suitable attire. They passionately kiss. He asks a Chinese girl to help sponge off his back during a bath. Julia and Ned kiss in the barn and then start tearing at each other's clothes. She's seen buttoning up her bodice after their adulterous tryst. (She later has a chance to clear his name by giving him an alibi and refuses.) One of Joe's friends likes to bed women. He hints at having a thirteen year old girl in his cabin. Later the police arrest him, tearing the sheets off the bed and revealing his nude girlfriend. (There's also brief side nudity on him.) I also found the language extremely offensive. While profanities are minor, these ardent Catholic boys abuse Jesus' name at least nine times. It seems rather contrite when, after blaspheming, Ned then says the blessing over supper. The first time Ned meets Julia, she's helping a stallion out of his bladder problem. Ned has to hold the horse's "thing" while she jams an iron rod up it.


Ned Kelly could have been very touching but instead it sold out cheap for foul language, implied adultery, and gruesome shots of animal brutality. This film is better left on the shelf.


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