Haven't we had about enough of simplistic "good guy vs. bad guy"
films? Wouldn't it be nice to have a film with some complexity, one
that renders life in all its realistic shades of gray? Yes, it would
be nice... just don't expect the 2003 rendition of Ned Kelly
to be that film. Based on the story of the real-life 19th century
Australian outlaw, the film carefully sidesteps any potential ethical
complexity or realistic character depth in favor of a simplistic
story of "innocent man persecuted by corrupt cops."
Ned Kelly is painted as a 19th-century Robin Hood, in fact an
outback saint. As the film opens, he's sent to jail for a crime that
we're shown he didn't commit: no ambiguity there. When he gets back,
he's painstakingly depicted as trying to walk the straight and narrow
and lift his family out of poverty by good old hard work, and he only
resorts to theft to regain the property that the police have
wrongfully seized from his family. Not too bad so far? Well, the film
is so careful to place him on a pedestal that he's shown as not even
being present in the scuffle that leads the police to denounce him.
Oh, and good old Ned never, ever shoots first, he gives his enemies
plenty of time to surrender, and when he actually is forced to shoot
a man, he's moved to tears and tries to save him. When he and his
gang start robbing banks as a way of fighting back against the
police, he distributes the money among the other down-trodden
The black-and-white approach to the story isn't an automatic kiss of
death; if the story had been told almost as a fable or morality play,
the clear-cut lines of right and wrong could have made it workable as
an almost abstract playing out of classic conflicts. However, Ned
Kelly opts for realism in all other aspects of the film, except
here in the characters' behavior.
If the situation were given more depth, the fundamental theme would
still be same: the problem of an overwhelming and inappropriate
response by the corrupt authorities to a minor crime. Even if Ned
were a horse thief and petty criminal, that wouldn't excuse throwing
his mother in jail, or torturing his friends, and it would raise some
interesting issues about the nature of a system in which individuals
felt they had no chance at succeeding in by legal means. As it is,
though, there's no room for complexity or thoughtfulness in this
film. It's the oppressed Kelly gang against the evil police. Ho hum.
Ned Kelly is a rather self-conscious film, I think; it's
trying too hard to create an epic, and it shows. The film makes
rather too much of the conventional high points in the story, such as
Kelly's dramatic declaration of war against the police, which is
rather less effective than the film seems to think it is, and it
neglects the mundane details of making sure the film flows well and
maintains the viewers' interest. What is there to make this film
worth watching? The plot is sketchy at best, the historical setting
isn't depicted in enough detail to be worthwhile in its own right,
the characters are, as noted, one-dimensional, and the pacing is
slow. This isn't a film that you'll actively hate, but it's certainly
one that will leave you wondering why you bothered.
Ned Kelly appears in a reasonably attractive anamorphic
widescreen transfer, at the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Colors look natural, and the print is clean, with no flaws appearing
in the image, though edge enhancement does appear in many scenes.
Contrast tends to be a bit on the heavy side, with less detail
apparent in darker scenes than I'd like, and overall the image is a
bit on the soft side.
Ned Kelly has both a DTS 5.1 and a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack,
though you'll have to go to the "Languages" section in the
main menu if you want to select the DTS option: the default is the
Dolby 5.1 track, and it's not possible to switch on the fly. In fact,
unless you read the fine print on the back of the case, you'll never
know that there's a DTS track offered here. The DTS is the better
soundtrack of the two, offering superior handling of sound effects
like gunshots and passing trains, but not by a huge margin; the
overall sound quality is about the same as the 5.1 track. Dialogue is
clear and balanced well with the music, but there's not a
particularly immersive feel to the sound.
Like the film itself, the selection of bonus materials for Ned
Kelly looks better on the surface than it turns out to be. "Ned
Kelly in Popular Culture" is a 13-minute featurette that serves
as a glorified promotional piece for the film; we get some archival
images of the real Kelly gang, and an overview of earlier film
versions of the Kelly story, but there's not a whole lot of substance
here. "The Real Kelly Gang" is just a set of still
photographs of the Kelly brothers. The "Artist to Feature
Comparison" is a small set of artists' sketches of sets and
costumes matched up with still photos of the final film version. The
"Poster Campaign" offers images of the posters used to
promote the film. Lastly, we get theatrical and teaser trailers for
2003 version of Ned Kelly is better than the 1970
version, but mainly by being bland rather than actively dreadful.
Fans of Heath Ledger (in the title role) as well as Orlando Bloom and
Geoffrey Rush (in supporting roles) may find the film moderately
interesting. I wouldn't bother to seek out this film, but I'll give
it a "rent it" to guide those viewers who are definitely
interested in seeing it.