Ned Kelly: Plot Outline and Reviews




"Ned Kelly"  is based on the novel "Our Sunshine" by Australian author Robert Drewe. It is based on the life of Australian bushranger and icon, Ned Kelly. The film describes Kelly's later life in north-west Victoria, where he lived all his life. Ned and  his brother Dan Kelly, as well as two other men, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne, Kelly's 'lieutenant', formed a gang often referred to as "The Kelly Gang". 

I recommend that those who have not seen the movie stop here, as spoilers lay ahead.

These four robbed a bank and hijacked an entire town for 3 days. They killed three policemen who were hunting them in bush near Stringybark Creek. They then took over the Glenrowan Inn in the small northern Victorian town of Glenrowan, where they held a party, waiting for a train full of police to derail at a part of the track that they tore up. However a school teacher named Thomas Curnow escaped and warned the train. The gang and all the others in the pub ended up in a shootout with scores of policemen, with a fire that ensued the morning after to smoke out the gang. However, Ned was already outside, Joe had been killed by a bullet in the groin, while two charred corpses with the trademark Kelly armour were found in the rubble.

Ned Kelly was trialled and hung in Old Melbourne Gaol on the 11th of November, 1880.




The popular folklore of every nation harbours at least one outlaw figure that defied the authorities in a spectacular fashion and captured the hearts of the common people in the process. Scotland has the inspirational William Wallace, England the daring Dick Turpin, and America the likes of Jesse James. For Australians, the admired icon of defiance is the legendary Ned Kelly.

In the late 19th century, Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, the son of Irish immigrants, became the world’s most wanted man, with an unprecedented bounty on his head. Such was the establishment’s fear of Ned, the government of the time passed a special law that granted ordinary citizens the right to kill the outlaw on sight without fear of any legal repercussions. Ned Kelly, the movie, charts the turbulent life of Ned (Heath Ledger) as he progresses from part-time horse thief to full-time enemy of the state and folk hero.

Ned and his family are members of a struggling underclass in frontier Australia. It takes capital and connections to carve a prosperous life out of the virgin wilderness, and the Kellys have neither. Life is hard for Ned’s people, and the occasional theft of a horse or cow adds the burden of a strained relationship with the local police.

The delicate truce between the Kellys and the law is finally broken when a drunken policeman arrives one night at the Kelly home and attempts to press himself upon Ned’s younger sister. The fiery Ned isn’t present, but the unwanted advance is halted by his little brother, Dan (Laurence Kinlan), and the frisky trooper is sent on his way after a light beating and a good scare.

In order to give the matter a chance to blow over, and to hopefully spare the Kelly family any immediate recriminations, Ned, Dan, and their good friends Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (Philip Barantini) decide to hide out in the hills for a few days. However, the group of young men soon discover that warrants for their arrest have been issued and that Ned and Dan’s mother has been carted off and sentenced to three years hard labour. For the newly formed Kelly Gang, life will never be the same again.

Enraged by the incarceration of his beloved mother, and not content to eke out whatever existence he can as a hunted fugitive, Ned decides the group’s fate. Formally declaring war on the authorities, the Kelly Gang set along a path of death and destruction that will last two years and end in a showdown like no other.

To be expected, Heath Ledger as the bearded Ned dominates most of the film’s scenes. As the tenth in a century long line of cinematic portrayals of the famous outlaw, Ledger surprisingly succeeds where his predecessors (including Mick Jagger of all people) failed dismally. Ledger, whose characters in such films as A Knight’s Tale (2001) and The Patriot (2000) were very much one dimensional, excels in bringing the multi-faceted Ned Kelly to life. Historians state that Ned Kelly was kind, intelligent, and philosophical, in addition to being capable of enormous rages and acts of violence. From his stirring monologues about the plight of the poor to his fervent declaration of war, Ledger has delivered it all in mesmerising fashion. It’s a performance that should help secure the 23 year old actor a place amongst Hollywood’s A-list.

The supporting cast of Ned Kelly is large, and could be cause for criticism. The film contains a number of scenes that appear to have no other purpose than to keep some of the actors happy. For instance, Rachel Griffiths, who’s best known as Brenda on TV’s Six Feet Under, is granted a five minute solo performance that’s more pantomime than serious acting, and doesn’t forward the story in any way.

However, there are some standout performers in the supporting cast. Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne and Naomi Watts as Ned’s on-again off-again love interest are the most notable. Bloom, in particular, makes a stunning leap from his recent role as Lord of the Ring’s elvan archer, Legolas Greenleaf, to embody the devil-may-care womanizer that was Joe Byrne.

Lead by Director Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers, Two Hands), the makers of Ned Kelly strike a delicate balance between historical integrity and the eye-candy that the majority of cinemagoers expect. Purists should be pleased with Jordan’s general adherence to the truth, and the remainder of the audience will be dazzled by a stunning array of scenes that culminate in the final showdown.

Ned Kelly is the fascinating story of an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. With its copious amounts of action, adventure, drama, and romance, it’s also a great movie experience. Ned Kelly earns the full five out of five.

- Joe Cooper; eFilmCritic : http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7271


The latest film version of the life of Ned Kelly looks like an extended preview of an epic that has about an hour missing. Director Gregor Jordan’s crowd pleaser abilities - which worked so well in Two Hands - aren’t quiet up to the task of taking on this legendary anti-hero. What is in there though is just fantastic.

Timing is everything, and it is an interesting time indeed to release a film about an anti-folk-hero whose convictions were strong enough to kill. Despite killing a number of police officers, a campaign to pardon Kelly that led to a 30,000 signature petition was ignored and Kelly was duly hanged at the age of around 25 years old. So here we have a sympathetic story of a killer at a time when such thoughts could never be entertained in today’s world.

Using Robert Drew’s novel, ‘Our Sunshine,’ as a basis, Ned Kelly is the story of a folk legend condemned to be an enemy of the police. Despite police murders, horse thieving and bank robbery, Kelly (Ledger), his brother Dan (Kinlan), and friends Joe Byrne (Bloom) and Steve Hart (Barantini) – the Kelly Gang – become local heroes. This film tells of Kelly’s passage to legend and his final fate as the police led by Superintendent Hare (Rush) move in to take care of him.

In a story of doomed youth, this is a wholly sympathetic portrayal of Ned Kelly. Although shown as a killer, it is a regretful killer. He redistributes - Robin Hood style - bank robbery proceeds to people in the community. He is seen as a target of police victimisation, and the disputed event of the shooting of Alexander Fitzpatrick is shown entirely according to the Kelly version.

The cast of Australian big names (and few ring-ins) Rush, Watts and Griffiths are all top shelf performers and do just fine with what they have. Rush makes sure Superintendent Hare isn’t just a monster, Watts gives a measured - if a touch out-of-place - performance and Griffiths hams it up as a bank manager’s wife. Bloom is all charm as the womanising Joe Byrne.

It is Ledger though that you will be left with the biggest impression. He gives it his all and he pulls off some mighty fine scenes. He creates a Ned Kelly of passion, intensity and righteousness. There is fire in those dark, deep eyes and a barely contained desire for what he perceives as justice.

The photography and music show the biggest hint that this is an epic cut at the knees. It is beautifully photographed by Oliver Stapleton (who has worked with Robert Altman). The film captures the setting and condition of the time without sentiment. The ugliness and the beauty of the times are shown in equal measure. You do get a great sense of time and place. The violence of the film is shown in a matter of fact manner. The true effect of being shot is shown in this film. The music by Klaus Badelt (Pearl Harbor and Gladiator) is sweeping, majestic and huge. Their input into the memorable climax at Glenrowan makes it dramatic, moving and frightening.

Ned Kelly’s story deserves Badelt and Stapleton’s efforts. Yet the script just isn’t there. While it’s interesting to see the influence of things like the Jerilderie Letter in the dialogue, the film is far too rushed - it flies about at a frenetic pace barely pausing for breath. The characters aren’t fully realised and the relationships between each of them are underdeveloped. We don’t learn the evolution of the famous armour or how the Kelly Gang got together - they’re just, there. Even the Jerilderie letter excerpt that we hear Kelly speak edits out some of the colour of the language and insights into the man that was Ned Kelly.

Humour does have a place in epic films. There are some laughs here - good ones at that. Yet they interrupt the flow of the film just a touch.

Perhaps a Martin Scorcese, Peter Jackson or even Mel Gibson (if he wanted to make another Braveheart) could have done this story justice, but what we have here is a story with gaps which prevents the viewer making a true emotional connection. I ended up not liking this film as much as I wanted to, but it does do one thing. It inspires you to find out more about this fascinating man. Read Robert Drew, Ian Jones or Peter Carey’s books - you will only learn more from them to fill in this film’s disappointing cracks.

- Dust for Eyes; eFilmCritic : http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7271&reviewer=166


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.

- Stephen Groenewegen; eFilmCritic : http://efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7271&reviewer=104


An unkempt, enjoyable retelling of the life story of an Australian legend, Ned Kelly splices the folk hero martyrdom of Braveheart with the bloody, roguish outlawry of Walter Hill's Jesse James western The Long Riders - without equalling either.

Australia, 1871, and the titular rebel (Heath Ledger) is accused of half-inching a horse. After clashing with a local copper, he goes on the run. Thanks to the venal, vicious nature of the police force, he finds himself a figurehead for the downtrodden public - a Robin Hood-style working class hero, together with his own wild bunch (which includes Orlando Bloom).

As this synopsis suggests, there is no clear-eyed revisionism in Gregor Jordan's wistful western. Kelly is the Mother Teresa of bankrobbers, a reluctant criminal who's regretful when violence proves necessary: keen to go home to his mum.

Such a goodie-goodie attitude could prove irritating, but Ledger is as likeable as ever - despite struggling manfully with an entirely pointless Irish accent. Kelly's parents were from Ireland, so chances are he boasted a brogue, but why strive for such authenticity, then shamelessly romanticise other elements? The most annoying of these is a romantic subplot involving Naomi Watts' married mistress, which wastes her talent and waylays the action.

And there is some impressive action, albeit great scenes rather than sequences: a dragged-up Bloom seeking revenge against his betrayer; a witty robbery in which thief and victims are schoolfriends; and a bloody, Butch Cassidy-style denouement.

There are grating, didactic moments ("I won't take this injustice!"), while Geoffrey Rush's superintendent is a role so underwritten it might qualify as a cameo. But star power pulls you through. Bloom, in particular, is brilliant, proving much more than a pretty face as Ned's right-hand man.

A rousing, watchable western then, if hardly to die for.

- Nev Pierce; BBCi Films : http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2003/09/22/ned_kelly_2003_review.shtml


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