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Robin Hood of the Outback -- how could that be dull?

Heath Ledger does well in this epic treatment of outlaw Ned Kelly's life, but the overall sense is of missed opportunity.

March 26, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Ned Kelly is Australia's most famous outlaw, a 19th century Irish immigrants' son who resisted British colonial oppression and became a folk hero celebrated in books, plays, operas, paintings, reenactments, even the 2000 Sydney Olympics and films, with Mick Jagger playing Kelly in Tony Richardson's dis- astrously arty 1970 version.

In the title role, the newest "Ned Kelly" has a splendidly cast Heath Ledger, who has the looks and talent to create a charismatic Kelly. This handsome production has the grandeur and sweep of a classic western and all the makings of an epic of terrific impact. However, working from John Michael McDonagh's straightforward adaptation of Robert Drewe's "Our Sunshine," director Gregor Jordan, whose approach is reverential to the point of self-consciousness, has come up with a highly formal and conventional film that is too often merely ponderous when it should be stirring. Klaus Badelt's pompous score completes the effect.

It is impossible to watch this big-deal movie without wishing that Fred Schepisi, Peter Weir or Phillip Noyce were directing it, bringing freshness and vitality and humor to the Kelly legend. It is to Ledger's credit that he commands attention throughout and is able to make Kelly's fate ultimately moving.

Kelly's parents were part of the first wave of Irish immigrants to Australia in the mid-19th century. The immigrants lived in poverty and were subjected to much anti-Irish sentiment, especially by brutal English colonial police officers and troopers. In 1871, when Kelly was either 17 or 18, he was accused of horse stealing. He resisted arrest and was sent to prison for three years.

Hardened by the experience yet determined to go straight, Kelly runs afoul of the law again in 1878 when an overbearing policeman (Kiri Paramore) is rejected by his sister Kate (Kerry Condon) and responds by harassing the entire Kelly family. Kelly and his mother (Kris McQuade) are unjustly charged with attempted murder of the cop, although he could be cleared if the wife (Naomi Watts) of an English landowner would come forward, but that would reveal she had been in a compromising situation with him at the time in question. No wonder Ned turns outlaw.

Kelly and his sidekick Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and their gang, which includes Ned's brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and their friend Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) are as dashing as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and their Hole in the Wall Gang, but they don't have as much fun. They may rob banks in frontier towns in the Outback, but it's to distribute the wealth to the poor in Robin Hood fashion.

While the Kelly Gang holds 60 citizens of the New South Wales town of Jerilderie hostage in February 1879, Ned dictates to Joe his famous and lengthy letter, addressed to the premier of the state of Victoria, outlining not only the injustices and oppression his family experienced, but those of all Irish Catholics.

By now Kelly has a record bounty on his head, and an ace cop, Supt. Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush), who understands the outlaw could trigger an uprising, is brought in to pursue the Kelly Gang in earnest, culminating in the June 27, 1880, showdown at the Glenrowan Inn, a confrontation as mythic as the gunfight at the OK Corral in which the Kelly Gang, clad in armor forged from ploughshares, face down a horde of troopers.

Only Ledger has the opportunity to create a character of depth and dimension, with Watts, a best actress Oscar nominee for "21 Grams," cast in a small, untaxing role. Rush is an incisive adversary, also seen only briefly, and the other members of the Kelly gang are just ordinary blokes loyal to Ned.

Since "Ned Kelly" -- which is not terrible, just too often dull -- has a no-expense-spared feel to it, this Focus Features release can be regarded only as an opportunity missed.


'Ned Kelly'

MPAA rating: R, for violence and brief nudity

Times guidelines: Too brutal and intense for children.

Heath Ledger...Ned Kelly

Orlando Bloom...Joe Byrne

Geoffrey Rush...Supt. Francis Hare

Naomi Watts...Julia Cook

Laurence Kinlan...Dan Kelly

A Focus Features presentation. Director Gregor Jordan. Producers Nelson Woss, Lynda House. Executive producers Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner, Tim White. Screenplay John Michael McDonagh; based on the novel "Our Sunshine" by Robert Drewe. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor Jon Gregory. Music Klaus Badelt. Costumes Anna Borghesi. Production designer Steven Jones-Evans. Art director Ian Gracie. Set decorator Jill Eden. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

In general release.

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