Opens Thursday, March 27
SYDNEY -- Australian actor Heath Ledger is still chasing a hit. A fixture on magazine covers and drawing all kinds of heat, he's yet to go over the top at the boxoffice.
After the slightly soft results of "A Knight's Tale" and the disappointment of "The Four Feathers", Ledger stays on horseback but leads the charge in a far more accomplished film with "Ned Kelly", the story of the famous outlaw. (Kelly is best remembered from the 1975 film starring Mick Jagger as the outlaw.) Directed by Gregor Jordan ("Two Hands" and the still-in-limbo "Buffalo Soldiers") with a mix of lyricism and muscular energy, "Ned Kelly" stirs together all of the best conventions of the Hollywood Western -- gunfights, horseback chases, bank robberies, compromised honor, loyalty and betrayal -- while maintaining the story's Australian qualities.
The presence of Ledger and the film's high-profile subject almost guarantee strong box-office locally. The debut Australian production from Working Title Films, this co-production with Universal Pictures is clearly a film aimed at a large international market. The film should have wide appeal as it is intelligent, well-cast and compelling from beginning to end.
In Victoria in the 1800s, Irish settlers are an op-pressed minority, brutalized and exploited by British landowners and police. Ned (Ledger), an Irishman who won't back down, is falsely accused of stealing a horse and ends up in prison. When Ned returns home years later, he finds that nothing has changed. When a policeman forces himself on Ned's sister, it is Ned's family who are persecuted when they defend her.
His mother is thrown in prison. Ned flees into the bush with his best friend, Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom), his brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan) and another friend, Steve Hart (Philip Barantini). Forced into supporting themselves as outlaws, Ned and his gang cut across the rugged countryside, robbing banks and holding up entire towns. Soon the most wanted men in Australia, they provoke the sympathy of other Irish settlers and bring down the wrath of the British Empire in the form of the relentless Superintendent Hare (Geoffrey Rush), who leads the manhunt to bring them in.
The rich, burnished cinematography of Oliver Stapleton ("The Cider House Rules") gives the Australian countryside a depth rarely seen on film, while some of the nation's biggest acting names deliver uniformly excellent performances. Ledger is the epitome of rugged rebelliousness but tempers his taciturn restraint with a welcome humor and sensitivity. Rush has limited screen time but manages to create a fascinating, fully rounded character with only a handful of lines.
Rachel Griffiths makes the most of her cameo, playing a sexually aggressive bank manager's wife. Naomi Watts ("The Ring") is hemmed in by her standard "romantic interest" role. Her insipid subplot with Ledger is the film's only completely fictional conceit, and it rings false at every turn. Joel Edgerton mixes charm and snaky malice as a traitor in the midst. And stealing all of his scenes is Orlando Bloom, whose rakish swagger and commanding screen presence suggest a formidable star in the making.
Expertly combining the personal and the epic, Jordan has crafted an excellent historical saga that doesn't collapse under the weight of too much history. Held together by Ledger's earthy charisma and Jordan's vigorous mix of action and character, "Ned Kelly" is a striking, stately and ultimately deeply moving experience.
Universal Pictures, StudioCanal and Working Title Films present an Endymion Films production in association with WTA
Director: Gregor Jordan
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Based on the novel "Our Sunshine" by: Robert Drewe
Producers: Nelson Woss, Lynda House
Executive producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tim White
Co-producers: Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume designer: Anna Borghesi
Music: Klaus Badelt
Editor: John Gregory
Ned Kelly: Heath Ledger
Joe Byrne: Orlando Bloom
Julia Cook: Naomi Watts
Superintendent Hare: Geoffrey Rush
Aaron Sherritt: Joel Edgerton
Dan Kelly: Laurence Kinlan
Steve Hart: Philip Barantini
Kate Kelly: Kerry Condon
Mrs. Scott: Rachel Griffiths
Running time -- 109 minutes
No MPAA rating
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