Ned Kelly

By Aoun, Steven | Metro Magazine, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Ned Kelly


Aoun, Steven, Metro Magazine


Gregor Jordan (d), John McDonagh (w), Aust, 2003, 110 minutes, ACTOR'S INCLUDE: Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts. DVD FEATURES INCLUDE: 'Ned Kelly In Popular Culture' Featurette, 'The Real Kelly Gang' Stills, and an Artist to Feature Comparison (collection of the stills and drawings used to inspire cast and crew).

Manning Clark notes that whilst Ned Kelly 'became a legend during his own life', there remains a 'difficulty in sorting out the fact from the legend'. Consequently, anyone who wants to tell the story of Ned Kelly finds it 'difficult not to take sides'. Unfortunately, Clark's characterization is only of provisional use--it fails to note that history is already about the nature of the entanglement between 'fact' and 'legend'. It's an account in the form of a narrative that we prefer to tell about and to ourselves--history involves choices about which facts are relevant and what they might mean. In fact, legend itself derives from 'legenda', literally meaning 'things to be read'. Ned Kelly's own star inadvertently gives us a better indication of the account of 'history'. It's not unlike a ledger, or book containing accounts to which debits and credits are recorded and assigned their respective places. The question, then, is not separating fact from fiction, but trying to determine which accounts are being credited or debited. Hence the historical relevance or accountability of Ned Kelly--he reveals the very nature of storytelling that we cam 'history'. It's not that Ned forces us to take sides--rather, his story compels us to acknowledge that there are at least two sides to every history.

Ned Kelly might be an Australian folk hero, but Jordan has opted for the full Hollywood treatment. Adapted from Robert Drewe's novel Our Sunshine, it fails to cast light on the facts giving rise to the legend. The casting of stars Rush and Ledger sum up the approach best, especially if we read the film intertextually. Audiences are led to believe that the sun really did Shine out of our Knight's Tale. The problem is certainly not Ledger's central performance, who initially makes an enigmatic character his own. The difficulty is the way the script tries to make the enduring enigma of Ned our national character and part of a cultural narrative. On its selection, we are simply here to canonize an already canonical figure. Ned might have been either born or made great/bad, but the mediocre script thrusts greatness/badness upon him. The divide between dissident selectors (impoverished farmers) and privileged squatters (rich landowners) is itself breached in favor of a salt of the earth approach.

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