Gregor Jordan and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton give Ned Kelly an arresting, bleached-muddy look, signalling that 1870s Australia was a very different place from today and instilling a foreboding that fate has had it in for the legendary bushranger from the start. Close-ups of flora and fauna contribute a peculiarly Australian aspect, and certain scenes (deliberately) echo the landscapes of painter Sidney Nolan.John McDonagh’s impressive first screenplay was reworked by Jordan to follow a linear narrative. It remarkably captures the poetry of Robert Drewe’s speculative history, Our Sunshine. Hearing Ned’s poetic stream of thought adds to the feeling that we’re viewing a legend unfolding, rather than witnessing the historical events of a traditional biopic. We gain a glimpse into the workings of Ned’s mind, which brings us closer but paradoxically also distances, since his world is so alien.
Heath Ledger is authoritative in the role, and conveys the requisite warmth, youth, ruggedness, determination and charisma. He binds the film, which covers a lot of ground and includes a large cast of characters. They may have only a handful of scenes, but skilled actors like Joel Edgerton, Rachel Griffiths and Naomi Watts leave a strong impression. Geoffrey Rush disappoints as a clichéd, ceaselessly glowering Javert. He’s one of those meaningless several-stern-policemen-rolled-into-one roles we’re familiar with from films like Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane.Jordan’s Glenrowan finale is especially fine. It’s a mixture of the rousing (Ned’s heroic last stand) and emotional (the deaths of innocent civilians) with the pathetic (the fate of Dan, Steve and Joe) and surreal (circus animals and performers, the otherworldly armour). My only significant criticism relates to the overly strident music of Klaus Badelt.