by Chris Wood
Outlaw Irish-Australian’s legendary story comes to the big screen.
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In the late 1800’s, Australia, “the land down under” was no joke. Many aspects of the untamed territory paralleled the American version of the Wild West. Occupied by Irish peasants, English nobles, Chinese, and crooked police, a fella growing up there had to be wary of the long and lying arm of the law.
As was the case for a young Ned Kelly: A native Australian born to Irish parents. The 16 year old got his first taste of unequal justice by an overweight Senior Constable named Edward Hall. Hall claimed Kelly was riding on a stolen horse—which was true but unknown to Kelly—and a bloody fight ensued. Hall took three shots at the unarmed Australian, missing on all three tries, before Kelly repeatedly threw him to the ground. Kelly was eventually wrestled to the ground by others on the scene, tied and the heavyset Hall pistol-whipped the boy several times. Kelly did three years hard labor and earned nine stitches from the beating. The following are some of Ned’s words on the encounter:
“I threw big cowardly Hall on his belly; I straddled him and rooted both spurs into his thighs. He roared like a big calf attacked by dogs. I got his hands at the back of his neck and tried to make him let go of the revolver, but he stuck to it like grim death. He called for assistance to a man named Cohen and Barnett, Lewis, Thompson, Jewitt and two blacksmiths who was looking on. I dare not strike any of them as I was bound to keep the peace or I could have spread those curs like dung in a paddock. They got ropes and tied my hands and feet and Hall beat me over the head with his six-chambered Colts revolver.”
Aussie Heath Ledger (Four Feathers, The Patriot) took on the role of Ned Kelly in this retelling of the factual and legendary story of the Kelly gang. The film is directly based on the novel, “Our Sunshine” by Robert Drew and was directed by Gregor Jordan. Jordan, who among his credits previously directed Ledger in a 1999 independent film called Two Hands.
Also joining Ledger in this movie were other Hollywood-well-knowns Orlando Bloom (Star Wars, The Phantom Menace), Naomi Watts (21 Grams), and Geoffrey Rush (Shakespeare In Love). Bloom played Joe Byrne, a friend and gang member of the Kelly’s. Watts took on the role of Julia Cook, a love interest of Ned. And Rush played the persistent Superintendent Francis Hare, who was assigned to take down the Kelly gang at whatever the cost.
The movie opens with an underwater scene where a young boy pulls another from a lake. Ledger, as Ned, narrates on the day’s events telling how he was awarded a green and gold sash for being a hero. The tone of the movie soon reveals that the accolade would be the only time he was rewarded and his soon to be infamous name would be equaled with terms like monster and killer. However, those words were only used by the English and police chasing after him, his brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan, Angela’s Ashes), Joe Byrne, and Steve Hart (Phil Barantini, Americano). The locals—his fellow Irish-Australian comrades—had him and his mates renowned as heroes; movie stars of today’s world.
The whole ugliness began April 15, 1878 (Ned was about 23 years old) when a constable named Alexandar Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore, Two Hands) visited the Kelly household, allegedly to call on Kate Kelly (Kerry Condon, Angela’s Ashes). Kate, the eldest of three sisters, wanted nothing to do with this man in his early twenties, and her brother Ned and friends Steve and Joe made this known. The constable returned to town with a lacerated wrist claiming that the Kelly’s had tried to kill him. So Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve hightailed it out of town to lay low. However, the magistrate, in rebuttal, had arrested Ned and Dan’s mother on trumped up charges and threw her in “the stir.”
The film tends to chop scenes from one point to the other and that makes following the movie in the beginning difficult. However, Ledger and Bloom give good performances and the gang’s lighthearted attitude and humor aid the transition for a 109-minute film that felt like it should have been two and a half or three hours to really tell it all. The humor is readily expressed in one bank-robbing scene where Ned and Joe enter the bank with pistols drawn to find that there is no teller behind the counter. To this, Ned looks at Joe, places his revolver down, and rings the bell as if he were a common customer. Joe turned out to be quite a character and ladies man. On two occasions during the picture, he cajoled a married woman and Chinese servant to bed.
Despite choppy scenes and sometimes-tired dialogue, the movie’ s finish proved to be an exciting, sentimental and mood altering one. Particularly, the ingenuity and genius the Kelly gang came up with to put such a plan in motion, which labeled them “Iron Outlaws.” Ledger, as Ned, narrated over one scene saying that the English always said the Irish were too big on dreams and fell short on gunpowder. But, Ned seemed quite sure on the match up to follow the Irish had both ingredients. The gang of four was preparing to face one hundred or more armed police. Those who have done any research on the subject know how it ends, but for those unfamiliar with the topic it is a good opportunity to gain some insight into the history of this famous outlaw and his short life. And for anyone who just likes a good ole shootout, the ending will be worth waiting for.
Whether this movie will gain a following and be released nationwide is unknown. As of current it is only playing in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The movie may gain a wider audience when it is released on DVD and video.
Chris Wood is a freelance writer and graduate student for fine arts in creative fiction and non-fiction writing.
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