Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970)

Streaming on Stan.

By © Jane Freebury

Every now and then, our most popular folk hero is taken out of storage, dusted down and given new clothes. This year saw the release of Justin Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, and it marks the 50th anniversary of Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly with rock legend Mick Jagger in the lead.

Intriguing. While his story in other media has been well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled

Both of these titles are currently streaming on STAN, and are very different takes on a young bushranger of Irish stock who was either a class warrior and proto-republican, or a lowly horse thief. You can take your pick.

Many interpretations have tended to have a bet both ways. Hardly a homage, Peter Carey’s wonderful, prize-winning book that Kurzel’s film is inspired by was wildly successful, and artist Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series from the 1940s have become canonical works.

It is intriguing that, while stories of Ned in other media have been very well received, the Ned Kelly films have struggled. Since Jagger did his turn in 1970, the part of Kelly has been played by two fine actors. In 2003, Heath Ledger had the main role in Ned Kelly, directed by Gregor Jordan. George MacKay has played him in Kurzel’s recent film.

The film medium is, unfortunately, demanding and exacting in its particular way, and from the first moments in the Tony Richardson film, there is obviously something missing. It opens on Kelly in prison, on his way to the gallows where he utters his famous parting words, ‘Such is life’.

It isn’t just the moustache that’s missing, it’s physical presence. In his chinstrap beard, Jagger looks more like a member of the Amish than the swashbuckling outlaw whose manly image in full beard we are accustomed to.

Is this the Rolling Stones frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either

More than this, it’s his flat, uncertain voice trying to project and the wavering accent. He tries whatever he can manage – Cockney, Australian, Irish – and the pub singalong featuring The Wild Colonial Boy is only faintly rousing. Is this the charismatic outlaw, a man of the people, who we are invited to celebrate?

Is this the Rolling Stones’ frontman? The film didn’t reflect well on his day job either.

Any Ned Kelly films needs a robust central performance. The lack of a compelling central presence in Kurzel’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is a weakness there to, and significantly subverted by having the male actors so frequently crossdress.

Serious shortcomings aside, the script, which was the work of director Richardson and local Kelly expert, the late Ian Jones, is packed with characters among the downtrodden Irish, and with incident. The sense of community is strong, especially compared with the bleak Kurzel version of a family isolated and vulnerable.

When there are more characters in the frame, and attention is not directed solely at Mick Jagger’s Ned, the film comes alive with the jauntiness that Richardson could do so well. The rollicking tone that dominated one of his most famous films, Tom Jones, is in the ascendant. If I turn a blind eye to the lead actor, this is what the film does best.

The ravishing location shots by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher, are another plus. They capture the individual character of the Australian bush and rural landscapes in their many moods. As many Canberrans know, Ned Kelly of 1970 was made in and around Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands.

Just a hint of homoerotica is implied when Kelly accepts a drink from Constable Fitzpatrick (the late Martyn Sanderson) at the pub. I also recall a brief scene of a man in a dress riding a horse, but nothing like the liberties taken in Kurzel’s film.

Mick Jagger has flirted with many things, including an acting career. He beat Ian McKellen for the part of Kelly but this performance probably buried any further ambition to act in feature films.

In 1970 the Australian film industry was on the cusp of a revival that would see classics later in the decade like Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Bilateral government support for subsidising a local industry was nearly, but not quite, there.

Richardson’s Ned Kelly was a big budget international coproduction that swept into town and made off with generous Federal Government funding. For this and other reasons, it was not received well. On the up side, it did at least convince Australian filmmaker Michael Thornhill and his contemporaries that they could do a lot better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 April 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

*Featured image: Ned Kelly, 1946, from Ned Kelly Series by Sidney Nolan, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

1917

MA 15+, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

For whatever reasons, World War I doesn’t figure nearly as much as World War II on the movie screen. Maybe because it was years ago and there have been so many other wars and quasi wars in between. Or maybe it’s because in WWI much of the conflict was confined to the trenches for months on end, a scenario that can have limited visual and dramatic appeal.

Either way it doesn’t really explain why the first global conflict hasn’t been mined more for its story-telling potential.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) saw the potential. He collaborated with writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns to develop a script from a piece of family history. A story his paternal grandfather, Alfred, told him about a young soldier who was sent across enemy lines alone to warn a British battalion that they were heading into an ambush.

It’s a slight story based loosely on fact. A race against time, a picaresque journey across the front, and a powerful re-creation of the conditions in the field for the millions of young men on both sides who sacrificed their lives.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) cross no-man’s land

1917 begins in spring on the edge of a grassy field, where lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake  (Dean-Charles Chapman) are napping in the sunshine.  The countryside looks just like what tourists see today. Broad, green fields that were once the battlefields of WWI extending as far as the eye can see. How could such a beautiful, peaceful setting have once been the backdrop to scenes of extraordinary carnage?

Their nap is interrupted. Blake suddenly gets orders to report to General Erinmore (an economical appearance from Colin Firth). He is told to take a mate along with him so his friend, Schofield, goes too.

Their secret assignment is to let Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch, another celebrity cameo) know that although it looks like the Germans have retreated, they have laid a trap and any advance will end in a catastrophic defeat.

And there is a further incentive. If they reach the battalion in time, Blake will also be able to save the life of his older brother, a lieutenant. It’s no coincidence that Blake sets the pace. The two men leave immediately, in broad daylight.

swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up

Schofield and Blake pick their way across no man’s land and enter the trench system the Germans left behind. It is infested with fat rats and set up for unsuspecting enemy soldiers and they barely escape with their lives. They are safer travelling above ground, picking their way through the ransacked farms and burning villages  to their destination.

From beginning to end, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the young soldiers firmly in its sights. One of the best in the business, Deakins has always been up for a challenge. He has shot 1917 in what looks like a single continuous take. If you search for them you could probably pick the edits, but the overwhelming impression is of being swept up in the two-hour journey through the killing fields, carried forward without let up. Immersion is total.

It’s the impression you get in other films shot in a single take, or something like it. Hitchcock’s body in the trunk thriller, Rope, is a famous one, though the cuts have been skilfully buried. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is a more recent example,  in which a trip through the Hermitage is actually managed in a single continuous shot.

had Schofield gone home a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him

Mendes’ 1917 is the boy’s own story. Neither fresh-faced young actor, Chapman nor MacKay, are as well known as the stars with bit parts, and that’s as it should be. 1917 commemorates the generation of young lives that were lost to the war machine.

Some of the classic films about the 1914-18 war, like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in the 1980s carry a strong anti-war message. They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s superb archival documentary on WWI released last year, sends a similar powerful message of the loss of young lives.

Young George MacKay is simultaneously appearing in the lead role in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, the latest film about the local folk hero who refused to take orders from anyone. Had MacKay’s character Schofield gone home to England a far stroppier and anti-authoritarian lad, who could blame him?

First published in the Canberra Times on 11 January 2020, also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Schofield (George Mackay) negotiates a ruined town

Ophelia

Rated M, 1 hr 46 mins

Dendy Canberra Centre, Palace Electric New Acton

3 Stars

Review © Jane Freebury

The true story of Ophelia is a ripe, juicy fruit that has been hanging low for the picking for a very long time. Four hundred or so years, actually.

Other characters from Hamlet like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have had their day on stage, but the tragic young woman who went mad when the Prince of Denmark rejected her, hasn’t had quite the same attention.

Sure, Ophelia has inspired novels and a multitude of references in art, literature and music since Shakespeare’s play was first performed, but this new feature film, based on a novel by Lisa Klein and directed by Claire McCarthy, takes her into the mainstream on screen with Daisy Ridley who is terrific here as the feisty heroine..

McCarthy is an Australian director whose previous work includes the sensitive and underrated film, The Waiting City, released in 2010.

Ophelia opens with that indelible image of her drowning in the river,  flowers floating around her as she sinks to her death. It references the famous painting by artist John Millais.

Once the moment on the river is past, a very different story begins to unfold in flashback in a Danish royal court where there is witchcraft, drug addiction and potions that people can use to play dead. While the state of the kingdom was a matter for debate in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, here it is clearly rotten.

a street-smart Ophelia for the 21st century

Although Ophelia is noble born in Shakespeare, here she is a pert street kid dressed in sackcloth. An urchin who catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who is not such a bad sort here, and she is brought into the royal household at Elsinore, to the delight of her ambitious father Polonius (Dominic Mafham).

The new king Claudius (Clive Owen)

Ophelia’s new backstory hints broadly that as a young girl she learned some useful things about resilience. She will need it if she isn’t going to be a victim at the court presided over by the new king, Claudius (Clive Owen, in a terrible lank wig, looking suitably evil) who murdered his brother to gain the throne and delectable Gertrude.

Hamlet’s character is necessarily backgrounded on this occasion but young British actor George MacKay still manages to put in a very good performance as the conflicted prince, fatally disillusioned, thoughtful and hesitant, losing his mind.

gorgeous costumes and lush production design can’t overcome dull writing

As a lady-in-waiting, Opheliahas become an auburn-haired beauty who is spirited, sexual and ultimately the agent of her own destiny. It is, after all, the only way her story can be told anew in the era of #MeToo.

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) and Hamlet (George MacKay) together

The young adult audience that Ophelia is aimed at will embrace this revisionist female protagonist and swoon over the gorgeous clothes and lush postmodern production design but won’t find it particularly compelling. Although Ophelia’s story moves in some bold new directions, the unimaginative and prosaic writing by screenwriter Semi Chellas doesn’t make the most of its opportunities.

Now that this new Ophelia offers a fresh, 21st century take on her, we wonder why it has taken so long to rescue her from her long-suffering image, as the ultimate victim. And we wish that this key female figure had been resurrected with a stronger and wittier, story.

If ‘to be or not to be’ was the question about the tragic heroine, we’ll have to wait for a better answer.

Jane’s reviews are also published by Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, and broadcast on ArtSound FM MHz 92.7