Saturday 20 June 2009

Ned Kelly (1970)

Director: Tony Richardson
Star: Mick Jagger

Beginning at the end, (literally: it throws THE END up onto the screen for us, right after the title of the film), this unsurprisingly tells us the story of Ned Kelly, famous Australian horse thief. He's in jail where he's quickly married and then hanged, with a beard and a hood around his head that makes him look not unlike a Rastafarian. That's an intriguing image given that he's played by a minor musical name you may have heard of, Mick Jagger, but that's the end of the end and we switch back to the beginning.

The beginning sees Kelly heading home after three years in Beechworth Jail. We're in 1871 and the Kellys aren't particularly popular in the neighbourhood. They're Irish immigrants, as you'd expect from the surname, and they live their lives like wild Irish rovers. Ned was locked up for stealing a horse and serving time seems to be a family trait, his brothers following suit. What's more, the moment they get out, they have a habit of promptly pissing off the local landowners by collecting up their horses and livestock and taking them to the impound stockade.

I get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to persuade us that the Kellys aren't bad folk, just a little wild, but it doesn't work. They may not start bad, but they hardly the brightest bulbs in the pack, however much Ned Kelly reads poetry and writes letters to the newspapers. The police are no better, having more than a couple of bad apples and being more than willing to bend the letter of their own law to get their men.

And so the whole thing escalates through idiocy and sheer bloodymindedness, until we're not just talking about minor cases of mischief and resisting arrest, we're talking about causing the death of a handful of policemen doing their duty trying to arrest them. And by this point it really doesn't matter whose fault it was, it'll never calm back down again, so with a $2,000 bounty on his head, Ned Kelly takes on the role of folk hero, using a newly acquired sense for public relations.

I was looking forward to this film for a number of reasons. I've been thoroughly impressed with everything I've seen with Tony Richardson's name on it; I was intrigued to see how Mick Jagger would play an Australian outlaw; and I have a soft spot for Antipodean movies generally. Technically Ned Kelly is a British film but it was shot down under (though in New South Wales rather than Victoria) with a mostly native cast: even the American character is played by an Australian called Bruce.

Unfortunately, while it has its moments it just doesn't feel Australian, unlike another film about an Aussie outlaw, Mad Dog Morgan, made six years later with a similar story and at least one of the same cast members, probably more. There are a few obvious reasons for this, not least the soundtrack which is utterly inappropriate. It's not that people like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson don't have fine voices and the songs that Shel Silverstein wrote for them are often pretty clever, but they're from a completely different culture. It all fits the subject matter about as well as if Snoop Dogg or Rob Zombie had done the work, and I kept half expecting the General Lee to leap over the hill with Roscoe P Coltrane in hot pursuit.

The other reason may not even be a good one and is very likely to be due more to my not knowing much about 19th century colonial history than in any lack of authenticity, but it doesn't feel that way. Having grown up during the '70s and '80s with the troubles in Northern Ireland never far from the front page of the papers and the results of them very apparent on the streets I walked to home and work, this feels like a deliberate translation of this English/Irish political war into a historical Australian setting. Sure, the English were running the show and there were Irish immigrants everywhere but surely the fight for Australian independence wasn't just run by Irish with a traditional hate for the English.

Mick Jagger's accent doesn't help much either, being less than consistent and not too authentic to boot. Apparently the choice to cast him as Ned Kelly was heavily controversial down under even before the film was made and I can't imagine the end result made them very happy either. I've seen Jagger act elsewhere and know he's not too shabby on that front, but I wouldn't have believed it had this been my first and only exposure to his acting. The various actors playing his family are more nondescript than bad, none of them really making anything of an impact.

Nondescript is a pretty good word for the film, really. There's some early promise but it doesn't go anywhere and the script is shabby enough to leave us wondering why the title character was even worthy of a film about his life. It can't just have been about the armour, however cinematic that was. A rock star in a suit of home made armour really isn't enough to constitute a worthwhile film, however famous he is and however white his teeth.

I wonder how much better Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom managed to get in their version of the story in 2003. At least that seems to have looked at the story from both sides instead of just one, but it doesn't sound very authentic either. I also wonder why the Aussies haven't attempted a serious version of their own. Maybe they're happy with the fact that they had made one way back in the day: The Story of the Kelly Gang being not just the first Australian feature length film but the first from anywhere. Made in 1906, it ran a full hour long and was even banned more than once for supposedly glorifying criminals. Unfortunately only 17 minutes survives today. It's probably better than this.

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