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Outback Outlaw from Box Office Online, August 1, 2002
originally posted at orlandomultimedia.net

Along With Heath Ledger in the Bushranger Lead, Universal’s “Ned Kelly” Boasts a Wealth of Down Under Talent

By Erin Lauten

If prevailing levels of enthusiasm are any indication, the people of Australia hope to find a reflection of themselves in the celluloid mirror of "Ned Kelly," a Working Title production that is currently filming on locations in and around Melbourne. "We're out in the middle of the bush," laughs Perth native Heath Ledger, who plays the role of the gunslinging iron outlaw.

"It's like a classic fable," director Gregor Jordan says of the film's narrative. "It's the story of a young guy who is part of a persecuted minority and fights against the corrupt system. That's the structure of a lot of classic stories; the weird thing is, this one is true. It actually happened in Australia."

In 1841, convicted pig thief John "Red" Kelly of Tipperary, Ireland, was sentenced to serve seven years on the Australian island of Tasmania. After finishing out the term of his banishment, he traveled to Port Phillip, Victoria, and in 1850 married Irish immigrant Ellen Quinn. Son Ned was born to the couple in Beveridge, Victoria, in 1854.

The eldest of three Kelly boys, Ned became the man of the family at the tender age of 12 when his father died. He earned money for the clan by working as a farmhand and a bare-knuckled boxer.

The legend gets under way when at age 16 Kelly is wrongly imprisoned for stealing a horse. After serving a four-year sentence, he is justifiably embittered but nonetheless determined to stay in the good graces of justice. When a law enforcement official assaults his sister Kate and younger brother Dan, and subsequently accuses Kelly and his mother of attempted murder, however, he is forced to go "bush" (head into the wilds). He takes up arms with Dan and two friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. Now formed -- and formidable -- the Kelly Gang blazes a trail of lawlessness through the Australian outback, plundering banks and eluding authorities. The mayhem culminates in an epic gun battle in the once-quiet hamlet of Glenrowan.


Some Australians view Kelly as a criminal and a misfit, but most consider him a national folk-hero -- a legend in his own time, and in ours. In fact, Kelly-mania seems to have reached an historical high. "Ned: The Exhibition," a large-scale exposition of Kelly artifacts -- including his whiskey still and the revolver he used during his last stand at Glenrowan -- has enjoyed a 10-month run at the Old Melbourne Gaol penal museum, and Australians have been lining up to buy copies of a new "Ned Kelly" CD, which features songs like "Battle Lines," "Stringybark Creek" and "The Siege of Glenrowan."

"Ned Kelly's story has come to encapsulate a particular Australian feeling: independence, frontier-seeking, speaking out against injustice," says Tim Bevan, the Queenstown, New Zealand-born co-founder of Working Title and one of the film's executive producers. "All of these things have a universal ring."

"The story is very important to Australian people," says Jordan, himself born in the nearby town of Sale. "Ned Kelly is a national icon. There are no close parallels with other heroes in other cultures. You could probably compare him to, say, William Wallace or Robin Hood. But there are no photographs of William Wallace or Robin Hood, and there are great-grandchildren of the Kelly family who are still alive."

Jordan directed Ledger previously in "Two Hands," which in 1999 received 11 nominations for the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, including Best Achievement in Direction (for Jordan) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (for Ledger). Jordan was excited to reunite with Ledger, whom he sees as the quintessential Kelly.

"The actual Ned Kelly died when he was 25," Jordan explains. "We really needed someone who was the right age. We also needed someone who has a lot of personal charisma and is a natural leader, because that's exactly what Ned was. To justify the budget, we needed an actor with a bit of box-office power. But also I needed an Australian. It would have been wrong to cast an American or even a Brit to play Ned Kelly. Really, when you look at all of those ingredients, Heath was the only choice."


To prepare for the role, Ledger dove into the many books on the subject. "I read 'Our Sunshine' by Robert Drewe, and Peter Carey's book, 'True History of the Kelly Gang,'" Ledger says. "But I've always known about him. I'm such a fan of Ned Kelly and what he stood for. It's not like I had to do much study of him."

It's also not like he had to think twice about taking the role. Ledger calls Jordan his "best mate," and says that Jordan's being the director was largely what enticed him to sign on for the film.

Ledger was also excited to work again with Oscar-winning make-up artist Jenny Shircore. "Jenny did a film I'm in called 'Four Feathers' [a Paramount/ Miramax Sept. 2002 release] and she won an Academy Award on 'Elizabeth.' She's a friend of mine, and she was the only way I'd come out here and do this."

When "Ned Kelly" comes to theatres worldwide in 2003, it will not be the first time for Kelly's extraordinary story to unspool on the silver screen. The first, also widely considered by film historians to be the first feature-length film ever, was "The Story of the Kelly Gang," from Australian director Charles Tait; it was released in 1906, a mere 26 years after Kelly's execution by hanging at Old Melbourne Gaol. Modern iterations include Aussie director Rupert Kathner's 1951 "The Glenrowan Affair" and British director Tony Richardson's 1970 "Ned Kelly," starring Mick Jagger as the infamous bushranger.

"It was such tragic miscasting," Jordan says of the Rolling Stones' lead singer's turn as Kelly. "It really upset people here and made them angry and pissed off that people from outside would take a story that's so important to Australians so flippantly."


The response to the new "Ned Kelly" has been quite the contrary. "The people of Australia have reacted extremely strongly," says Working Title's Bevan. "When we released the first picture of Heath [as Kelly] to the press, it was printed in every single newspaper in Australia. It's a huge story here."

"Some of them put it on the front page," Jordan says of the Heath-with-horse image. "It was amazing. The whole country here is pretty excited about it. To see someone who is physically very much like Ned Kelly and to see Ned Kelly come alive in front of your eyes -- I think it got people really excited in this country. They went, 'Wow, potentially this film is actually going to be good.'"

The movie draws inspiration from "Our Sunshine," the 1991 novel penned by Drewe, an acclaimed Melbourne-born author. "The script started off being based on the novel," Bevan says. "When Gregor Jordan got involved, he then did a draft of the script himself and one with the original writer, John McDonagh, sourcing many arenas of the Ned Kelly story in order to round out the script. But, at the end of the day, the tone of the Robert Drewe novel is very much what this particular rendition of the story is based on."

"The script was very metaphysical," Jordan notes. "It was an unusual way to tell the story. We developed it quite a lot, keeping the essence of what was there in the original script, and the book, which has a quite esoteric way of getting into the characters' minds. But then we started making it a bit more historically accurate. We're not trying to make a straight bio-pic, but the thing is, especially in Australia, when you're telling this kind of story you have a responsibility to tell it properly."

One might expect Ledger to be feeling a heavy weight of pressure to properly portray the legendary outback outlaw. "I'm not feeling pressure from the general public," Ledger insists. "I more or less gave myself a bit of personal pressure and said, 'I've got to pull it off.' But that's good. You're supposed to set the stakes high for yourself."

Adds Ledger, "I'm working with great people, and that's made it easy."


Joining Ledger onscreen is a disproportionately star-spangled cast, including Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, who stars as Francis Hare, the venomous detective against whom Kelly faces off at Glenrowan. "Geoffrey is just amazing," Ledger says of his Toowoomba-born co-star. "We had a few scenes together -- mostly just firing guns at each other. He was the hunter and I was the hunted."

"I had met Geoffrey here and there, and I'd heard a lot about what a terrific person he is and how great he is to work with," Jordan says. "Geoffrey is a proper actor. He really knows what he's doing. He came in very prepared and well-researched, but at the same time he was really open to ideas and wanted to try things. He was very good to work with."

Naomi Watts, who received critical kudos for her dual role of Betty Elms/ Diane Selwyn in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," plays Kelly's love interest, Julia Cook. "There's a doomed-love story, which is a major subplot," Jordan says. "Naomi plays the woman Ned falls in love with. She and Heath are fantastic together. They really get along well, and she's really good to work with."

Although this is Jordan's first time working with Watts, who was born in Britain but raised Down Under, the two were not strangers to one another. "I've known Naomi for years, and I'm quite proud of her," the director says. "She's been battling away doing Australian films for years, and finally she's got this huge international career in front of her. It was amazing seeing her in 'Mulholland Drive.' Everyone said, 'This girl is seriously good.'"

The Oscar-nominated, AFI Award-winning actress Rachel Griffiths plays Mrs. Scott, a cameo role that Jordan characterizes as comedic. "Rachel is someone else I've known for years," Jordan says of the Melbourne native. "It's funny in Australia, because everyone knows everyone. The industry here is quite small, and it is kind of bizarre that so many local actors have now got these big international careers."

"They've all been wonderful to work with," Ledger says. "Rachel and Naomi are wonderful actresses -- very professional and perfect in their roles."


The role of Joe Byrne, who rides alongside Kelly in the Kelly Gang, is played by Orlando Bloom, fresh off the elfin heels of his role as Legolas Greenleaf in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "Orlando is a star of tomorrow," Jordan notes. "He's a great guy and a very good actor. He landed the job in 'Lord of the Rings' straight out of drama school. When he finished that, he got a role in 'Black Hawk Down.' He's in demand." The "Ned Kelly" roster also features Laurence Kinlan as Dan Kelly, Philip Barantini as Steve Hart, Joel Edgerton as Aaron Sherritt, Kerry Condon as Kate Kelly and Saskia Burmeister as Jane Jones.

"It is a good cast, and I like the fact that most of it is Australian," Jordan says. "We actually have cast quite a lot of Irish actors playing key roles, too, because many of the characters in the film are Irish. Heath's doing an Irish accent, and I thought if I had too many Australians doing accents the whole thing would potentially get a bit out of hand."

To perfect his Irish inflections, Ledger tapped the expertise of dialogue coach Gerry Grennell. "He worked with me on 'Four Feathers' as well," Ledger says. "He's a genius, so I brought him with me." Ledger did not, however, require extensive training in the gunslinging department. "They just have to show you how to pull the trigger," he laughs.

After a few more weeks of production, the reels of film are destined to be traveling to England for all of the finishing touches of post-production. "It's going to be sad to put the movie aside and walk away," Ledger says. "It's a fantastic story, and Ned Kelly has been a wonderful character to play."

"Ned Kelly." Starring Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Rachel Griffiths. Directed by Gregor Jordan. Written by Robert Drewe and John M. McDonagh. Produced by Nelson Woss and Lynda House. A Working Title production; a Universal/United Intl. Pictures release. Opens 2003.