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 LautenIf 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
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
"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."
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
"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.
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."
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.