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