FILM REVIEW: News Weekly
Ned Kelly (2003)
, April 19, 2003
A new film, Ned Kelly, released amid great acclaim, promises a new insight into the Australian legend that refuses to die. Though hanged in 1880 as a murderer, Ned Kelly captured and still holds the imagination of the nation as no other. One of the unresolved questions that haunts any discussion about Ned Kelly is: was he a social bandit, a symptom of his time and place, or was he simply a criminal involved in unlawful activity?
The colonial Victorian Government saw its police force "modelled upon that of the Irish Constabulary, which has been found to be the best adapted for the purposes of the colony".1
One of the influences that deterred the Irish from reconciling their past was the Royal Irish Constabulary. The colonial Victorian Police Force had powers far beyond the norm. It was composed mainly of ex-Royal Irish Constabulary officers and constables with powers to determine eligibility as to who could select land and powers to revoke land grants.
The force heightened the impoverished selectors' woes. The Police Royal Commission in 1881 found police "did violence to people's ideas of the liberty of the subject ..."2Bandit
In such a climate, the social bandit, Ned Kelly, operated with impunity, as if he were Robin Hood.
Several movies tried to capture the intensity of the social divisions of the Kelly story, but few succeeded. To date, the best was Ian Jones' TV movie, The Last Outlaw
(1980), while Richardson's Ned Kelly
(1970) starring Mick Jagger was (in)famous only because of Jagger's woeful Irish accent.
Does the latest Ned Kelly,
based on Robert Drewe's quirky fictional book, Our Sunshine
(1991), bring the audience closer to understanding the time, the nature of colonial society and the social problems of land selection and settlement?
Despite the vast tracts of land, the Victorian squatters had prior to the discovery of gold in 1851 established a stranglehold on the land and the reins of political power. In 1860, on the streets of Melbourne, former gold miners hungry for land, proclaimed a provisional government and demanded "a vote, a rifle and a farm". Successive flawed Victorian Land Acts
allowed squatters to manipulate the system, re-acquiring lands opened for selection, through ploys known as peacocking, and dummying.
To the leaderless selectors in North-east Victoria, Ned Kelly opposed the squatters who attempted to drive them from their lands through the misuse of corrupt shire officers, the courts and police. Therein lies the crux of the Kelly legend. Of all Australia, it was in Victoria that the land struggle between selectors and squatters was most intense and erupted into open conflict. One of the best accounts of this social conflict is McQuilton's book, The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880.
Heath Ledger's Ned Kelly is an uninspiring portrayal of a man who held the loyalty and support of the selectors throughout North-eastern Victoria. Superintendent Hare, the film nemesis portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, was a missed opportunity. In real life, Hare was part of the elite squatter establishment.
In Ned Kelly
, Constable Fitzpatrick's false evidence surrounding the events at the Kelly's home gave a glimpse into the saga. But the film's pre-occupation with myth-making the Kelly Gang into serial womanisers, missed the essence of Fitzpatrick. It was Fitzpatrick, the ever-amorous Romeo whose exploits triggered the Kelly outbreak and had him dismissed in disgrace from the force for an amorous escapade elsewhere. Fitzpatrick's horizontal dalliances were better factual material than the gang's mythical exploits.
The failure to develop the characters of gang members, Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly rather than adding to Ned's story, detracted. Certainly, Joe Byrne's Chinese language skills emerged in the film, but as a means of chatting up Chinese girls in the region. Steve Hart's horsemanship and his spectacular jump at the Wangaratta railway gates added to the Gang's prestige, but were ignored in the film.
The flaw with this Ned Kelly
is that its cardboard characters playing second fiddle to a leaderless Ned do not strike a chord with the modern audience nor give an insight into the times.
Like an old 1930s Australian film, gum trees abounded with kookaburras and parrots while the odd kangaroo sat in the top paddock.
The scene at Stringybark was well constructed, with Constable McIntyre shooting parrots, thus drawing the Kellys to the police camp. McIntyre and his ill-fated group disguised as prospectors "set out from Mansfield town ... to hunt the Kellys down", but the film had them in uniform. Perhaps this is not a great issue, but there are ongoing debates why the Stringybark police party was so disguised. The official line was, and still is, that it was for security, while others argue it was a ruse for a "find and kill" operation.
The film's armourer, John Fox, ensured the firearms of the period were correct, while the recreation of a locomotive into an old time Victorian railway piece was a neat two second clip. The battle for Glenrowan, with masses of police and civilian casualties, along with a lion and monkey was fictional nonsense.
The Kelly outbreak is Australia's great story, it will be told and re-told, with debates surrounding land, selection, corrupt courts and police projected to last at least another one hundred years or so.
This Ned Kelly
missed the mark. "Such is life."
1. 'Victorian Parliamentary Papers
, 1883, Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria: General Report' in Section xxii - Municipalities and the Police, pp. xxiii & xxiv.
2. Police Royal Commission, Section X.