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Ned Kelly:
A Short Life
by Ian Jones

. "Ned Kelly"

Film biographies are difficult, even when cast with a hunk of a leading man (Heath Ledger in the title role), one of the hottest female leads around (Naomi Watts, "21 Grams"), and a supporting actor like Orlando Bloom ( "Pirates of the Carribean") who seems to have the female heart in the palm of his big screen hand. Despite such acting power, high western-style production values and action punch, the film and its Robin Hood-outlaw central figure fail to create a fully satisfying experience, held back, I would suggest, by the constraints of an actual historical life whose exploits appear to be less than universally engaging. No doubt, it plays better on the British Isles and down under.

Edward "Ned" Kelly (Ledger, "The Patriot"), an Irishman on the Australian frontier, is a bit of a reckless youth with enough spunk and daring to make enemies. Unfortunately, his sense of justice doesn't comport well with the weasals on the police force. When he's accused by a cop that he beat up for stealing a horse that he didn't steal, he gets sent to a Melbourne jail for three years. Once out, he tries hard to fit in without bringing any more trouble down on his or his family's head. He picks up day labor and uses his fists in bare-knuckle boxing for the prize money.

His looks and spirit make him a trouble magnet, however. Julia Cook (Naomi Watts), the beautiful wife of a rich rancher he's working for makes moves on him when they're alone in the stable, resulting in a hot liaison and a class mismatch. While they are doing a bit of consummating, more unasked-for trouble brews when a loathsome policeman comes calling at the Kelly house because he can't take no for an answer from Ned's sister. Spurned and humiliated by the Kelly clan and buddy Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom), he gets his revenge by accusing Ned of shooting him. Well, Ned may be off shooting but it's not at any cop.

But, this is how his life goes. He's always the better man but those above him in the stations of life are wretched, depraved scoundrels who will make up any lie for a payback they can't secure honestly. One accusation is heaped on another as Ned takes to the hills with his little band, robbing the rich for a little social justice and giving the money to the needy, becoming a legendary folk hero. When he leisurely robs a bank and stops to burn mortgages, it becomes a state offense and the equally famous Superintendent Francis Hare (Geoffrey Rush) is sent out with an army to track him down.

In a story designed to compel admiration and a tie of sympathy for the much maligned hero, director Gregor Jordan, the one who made such a disorderly mess of depicting the military in "Buffalo Soldiers," dissipates dramatic energy with enough meandering side issues to slow down a horserace and allows the pace to emphasize the B-level standard of dialogue that echoes in this Australian countryside. The masterful visual texture of the piece (cinematographer Oliver Stapleton) seems to bring too much focus to the waste of such promise in the talent and to an unfulfilled opportunity for exploiting the heroics of a brave rebel.

Ledger has the dimensions necessary to make a good script work in his favor but doesn't salvage this one. Bloom edges off the page now and then to entertainment us with his dashing and colorful side-kick hero, with a suggestion or two of Tyrone Power in days of yore. Totally capable of far more intrigue and complexity than she finds here, Watts takes a role that's beneath her station of talent.

Other than that, Ned Kelly is a ride that doesn't seem to take us far enough.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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