Ned Kelly is the riveting account of the heroic and somber career of the real-life 19th-century Irish-Australian outlaw. Shot by the brilliant Oliver Stapleton in a reduced sepia-like palette, the film rises above its own shortcomings through Heath Ledger's electric embodiment of Ned. That the Aussie actor must have deeply identified with his legendary countryman is evident in every frame. His eyes shoot bolts of rage at the injustice he and his fellow Irish immigrants are forced to endure at the hands of the British oppressors. As an added bonus, Ledger (who appears to be an accomplished horseman) and Orlando Bloom, as his sidekick Joe Byrne, are the most charismatic buddies to heat up the screen since Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The film takes off as Ned, a bushranger already brutalized by the police, is tossed in the clink on false charges of horse thieving. Emerging a few years later in 1874, the toughened Ned vows to stay straight, rejoins his widowed mom and siblings, and earns money as a bare-knuckle boxer. Working as a farmhand, he ignites the interest of the English landowner's wife (Naomi Watts). Trouble arrives when Ned's sister rebuffs a police officer, who then charges Ned and his mother with attempted murder. The remainder of the film follows the formation of the Kelly Gang, who raise hell through the outback, robbing banks to fund themselves, and recover, Robin Hood-style, immigrants' land deeds. When the Brits bring in master cop Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush), Ned, who has become a hero to the masses, meets the fate that will seal his legend.
The film is somewhat flawed by cursory character development: We get little insight into Ned and his family, and his loyal followers remain ciphers. We could also have used more detail about the social dimension of Ned's resistance against the establishment, to better understand how a desperado became a beloved icon. Did Gregor Jordan (director of the blackly funny and underrated Buffalo Soldiers) fear that a historical context would tax the attention of mainstream audiences? Without it, Ned Kelly too often plays like an outback western, with Kelly's gang standing in for renegade cowboys. As for the chemistry-loaded encounters of real-life partners Ledger and Watts, couldn't we have gotten a little more?
Still, this second collaboration between Jordan and Ledger (after Two Hands) fills the screen with a dark, romantic energy, aided by a soaring, Irish-inflected score. The bloody shootout between the outnumbered Kelly Gang, sporting armor hammered from metal ploughshares, and an army of police is spectacularly staged. Midway, there's even a comic cameo from Rachel Griffiths as a proper wife held hostage by the gang, who takes the opportunity to canoodle with Bloom. Towering above it all is Ledger, who morphs from a handsome, hot-blooded youth, changing hairstyles and adding facial hair to become an invincible outlaw, defiance etched on his features. This is an actor with old-time firepower, and I'm eager to see whatever he does next.