Starring Brad Pitt? Directed by Neil Jordan? Based on Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel? Those were the potential ingredients of the other Ned Kelly biopic touted for this year. It's like buses isn't it, - you wait for ages and then two come along at once...
Or not. The likelihood of Jordan's film being greenlit will undoubtedly dwindle now namesake Gregor (no relation) has made his version - - based, not on the Carey book, but on another fictionalised take on the Kelly myth (Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine). Well, be honest: how many films about an Aussie bushranger-turned-folk-hero do we need? Especially as there's already been a slew of other movies inspired by his brief life, ranging from Tony Richardson's 1970 take (starring - - oh yes - - Mick Jagger) to the 1993 Yahoo Serious "comedy" Reckless Kelly.
More than a century after his execution, debate still rages about Kelly's role in Australian history. Was he a fearless crusader, fighting for the rights of a persecuted Irish underclass? Or a horse-thieving murderliser who robbed his victims as they lay dying? Jordan and scripter John Michael McDonagh take the former tack, bending over backwards to make Kelly loyal, noble and true - - a man of the people forced to go on the run when he is unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit. This is the kind of charming rebel who dictates a Robin Hood-style manifesto while raiding a bank, or who gently cradles a fellow he's just shot. Even the theft of a dead copper's pocket watch is excused as a spur-of-the-moment transgression humbly regretted afterwards.
These are the concessions you make when you have Heath Ledger as your lead. To his credit, though, the Knight's Tale star makes a brave stab at jettisoning his teen-pic past and turns in a charismatic and often moving performance. He also copes well with some obstacles, notably Rip Van Winkle face-fur and a Wild Bunch-style shoot-out that requires him to wear a bucket on his head.
It's in this final stretch, ironically, that Kelly feels most alive, DoP Oliver Stapleton lending the posse an Arthurian grandeur as they face off against the police while wearing steel helmets.
Elsewhere, the symbolism is far clunkier. Kelly's hunted like an animal, a comparison rammed home later when a caged lion is gunned down. And flashbacks to a young Ned saving a lad from drowning are unsubtle reminders of the decent citizen he could have been if he'd only been given a chance.
If this sounds simplistic, that's because it is. And it doesn't help when talents like Naomi Watts, Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom are saddled with two-dimensional roles as Ned's lover, nemesis and best mate respectively. For all that, Jordan's bold appropriation of the Kelly legend proves that Buffalo Soldiers was no fluke, while Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths has a hilarious cameo as a randy Scot turned on by Ledger's bad-boy rep.
Much more like a conventional Western than a revisionist biopic, this Aussie Braveheart has enough stirring scenes to make up for the blandness of its execution.