[box cover]

Ned Kelly

For a film starring the inimitable Mick Jagger as an Australian folk hero made famous for donning crude bulletproof iron and engaging in a lengthy gunfight with the Victorian police, it's perhaps surprising that Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970) has never acquired a cult following. That's probably because those who've seen this enervating piece of outlaw worship have never felt inclined to recommend it to friends. As riddled with flaws as Kelly's famous armor was with bullets, the film's most critical shortcoming is its star's inept, charmless performance. In 1970, Jagger probably was the biggest, most instantly identifiable rock star in the world, but none of his trademark swagger is on display here. This is troublesome because, by many historical accounts, Kelly was quite a seductive bad boy. In other words, this should be perfect casting, but Jagger, saddled by the stiff speechifying of Richardson and Ian Jones's script, looks terribly uncomfortable. As he whips up resentment against the wealthy cattle farmers running roughshod over the poor Australian workingman, Jagger's performance never rises above bland line-recitation, which renders watching the film a massive chore. But Jagger's not the only culprit here; Richardson, who kicked off the British film renaissance of the previous decade with his memorable stage-to-screen transfers of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, seems less interested in dramatizing his protagonist's tale than in showing off the Australian outback. Working with the underrated cinematographer Gerry Fisher, who contributed memorable imagery to pictures like The Ninth Configuration, Wolfen, and The Exorcist III, Richardson does occasionally capture the country's rural splendor, but that hardly makes up for the hole at the film's center. Exacerbating this weakness is a disjointed narrative that never acquires any momentum. Though a convicted horse thief, Kelly became a hero after being wrongly accused of assault by a cowardly police officer. When Kelly fled to avoid incarceration, the local authorities sentenced his mother to a three-year jail sentence, thus giving Ned the moral high ground that was denied him in his disputes with the law. But what should be a rollicking tale capped off by a tragic standoff just limps along under Richardson's uninspired direction. Even the final shootout and massacre fail to elicit any emotion, hampered by the same lackluster staging that drags down the rest of the film. Waylon Jennings fans might enjoy his singing of Shel Silverstein's songs composed expressly for this picture, but they're probably better off hunting down the soundtrack. It's a shame that this intriguing combination of talented artists resulted in such a resounding dud. The Ned Kelly story has recently been remade by Gregor Jordan, with Heath Ledger in the starring role, and while it's no classic, it's at least a vast improvement on this utter misfire. MGM presents Ned Kelly in a murky anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) with so-so Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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