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Ned Kelly

Dry as the Australian Outback

For many Americans, Ned Kelly is a name they may have heard but don't know much about. On the other hand, speak to any Aussie and you will almost certainly see the chest flare out and chin rise as he begins a soliloquy on the smallest continent's most beloved cult figure. Despite being a convicted thief and murderer, Kelly is remembered not as a recidivist criminal, but rather as a champion of the poor against the corrupt Aussie government.

Though good movies are never easy to make, it seems that the formula for this picture should be relatively straightforward. Clearly, the first and most important task is to find an actor charismatic enough to reenact Kelly. And since his story has already been set out in history books, all that remains is to select the most illustrative highlights. The path to success would seem to be clear.

Unfortunately, director Peter Jordan fails to even perform these simple tasks. Heath Ledger is miscast as Kelly and comes off as something less than the natural leader and astute tactician he is purported to be. Though not quite as wooden as say Paul Walker- quite possibly the worst actor working today- Ledger's rigid demeanor during his one notable speech sap any and all effect his words possibly could have had. In fact, stirring speeches are noticeably absent as a whole in this film. For someone who grew to fame by galvanizing common folk, he performs surprisingly little articulation. One may suspect that the director realized that the part given Ledger was challenging enough already and, therefore, thought it better to have Kelly lead by example, but little evidence is presented to support this fact. In fact, when the movie finishes, it is unclear why Ned Kelly is worthy of such remembrance.

Furthermore, in a movie that seems to lack the time to develop its central character, the interjection of a fictional love story between Kelly and Julia Cook (Naomi Watts) is deplorable. Though the sum of their interaction is several longing glances from afar, on the first occasion they find themselves alone they cannot help but act on their burgeoning love. Watts is a talented actress but all she does here is fill the void for a pretty face which the filmmaker mistakenly thought to be essential. His justification that Kelly was a "passionate, very charismatic guy" and "there is no way women are not going to find him cool" is sillier than the romance itself.

This isn't to say that the film didn't have its moments. Orlando Bloom provides some chuckles as Kelly's womanizing sidekick Joe Byrne and Geoffrey Rush tosses in the occasional steely stare as police superintendent Francis Hare. And for the most part the film moves along at a reasonable clip. However, none of this compensates for the film's failure to add any color to its lead character. When taking over a hotel for two days, the real Ned Kelly engaged in a sports meet where he competed against the hostages in a 'hop, step and jump' contest. It was these sorts of peculiarities that allowed him to build a rapport with the working class, even as an outlaw. Why the director replaces this event with Kelly conversing with a female childhood acquaintance is mystifying to say the least.

Sometimes, a great film will provide just enough information to whet your appetite to go out and do additional research. After seeing, Ned Kelly, I did feel compelled to learn more about the individual, but not because the film piqued my interest, but rather to verify my hunch that such an enduring character must have been more interesting than the one portrayed in the film. That hunch was correct.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5