Ned Kelly

Year: 2003
Director: Gregor Jordan
Writer: Robert Drewe/John Michael McDonagh
Cast: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, Rachel Griffiths, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, Peter Phelps
Director Gregor Jordan has been quoted as saying that he hopes the upcoming Ned Kelly stirs up debate about our most revered (and best-known) bushranger.

And while debate might rage about the real Kelly (though it isn't destined for as much passion as the debate between teenage girls over whether Heath Ledger or Orlando Bloom is the bigger babe), it will never settle.

Because despite being the topic of dozens of books, documentaries and at least five feature films (including what's often credited as being history's first ever), little is known of the man himself.

The best kept record is a letter Kelly dictated to friend and gang member Joe Byrne during a bank holdup in Jerilderie about his exploits and the reason behind them.

It's from this diatribe (which you can download from plenty of websites and judge for yourself) that Robert Drewe wrote his fictional account Our Sunshine, and from there Jordan, Ledger & Co bring Kelly and his story to the big screen yet again.

The trick in portraying the Kelly gang successfully is to stay faithful to the dichotomy. Despite his heroism, Kelly was a robber and a murderer. He killed people, had people killed, and (according to Drewe and Jordan) seemed more interested in the showmanship of his myth than social justice by the time he was captured and executed.

And despite a very impressive setup, incredible costuming and photography and the formidable talents of the young leads, the first half hour makes it look like Jordan is simply remaking Robin Hood for the international audience - a criminal on the run and out for justice after constant police harassment of his family.

The lucrative American market - after all - is going to want nothing more than a 19th century Crocodile Dundee, an outback avenger like Zorro or Batman, trod underfoot by official corruption but who rises above through moral fibre alone to save the day and die a hero.

But to the credit of both Jordan and scriptwriter John Michael McDonagh, Kelly and his friends' dark sides are given equal screen time. With no compunction whatsoever, they murder Byrne's childhood friend Sherritt (Edgerton) - who wants no part in the runaways and only wants to protect his new family - for ratting them out to the cops.

They also take the entire patronage of the Glenrowan Inn hostage on the stormy night of their famous final stand - many of them getting caught in the crossfire of the hair-trigger police.

The execution of the story is nearly faultless, and despite actors that have been selected as much for their marketability as their skills, everyone does a fantastic job bringing the legend to life. The unforgiving cold of outback Victoria is captured breathlessly from the towns springing out of the mud to the bushland hideaways of the gang.

Ledger again confirms talents far above most contemporaries his age. He's a bulky, physically imposing presence like the real Kelly is supposed to have been, and has the accent down a treat.

Supported by some of the best performers in Australia (at times it seems an Aussie who's who, everyone from Rachel Griffiths to Bud Tingwell popping up), the only negative is Geoffrey Rush as Kelly's nemesis Hare, whose character is never explored enough to make him more than a sort of outback Darth Vader.

So while not a definitive account of the history of the Kelly gang (which there never will be - such is life), it certainly looks like one and presents plenty to think about - historians will enjoy it as much as fourteen-year-olds with 'Heath 4 Ever' in their school diaries.

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