The first in a string of violent ’70s features about 19th-century Australian outlaws, this offbeat pseudo-Western is notable for featuring rock star Mick Jagger’s first starring role as an actor. (The same year this picture was released, he costarred with James Fox in the freaky psychodrama Performance, but he’s the sole protagonist of Ned Kelly.) Since Jagger was well on his way toward becoming a living legend in the rock world at the time Ned Kelly was made, there’s no way to avoid the impression that acting was a lark rather than a serious endeavor, and, indeed, his halfhearted performance drains the movie of vitality right from the first frames.
Awkwardly wrapping his voice around an Irish accent that varies from scene to scene (when not disappearing altogether), Jagger seems like a kid playing with toy guns whenever he flits around the screen brandishing firearms or leading his outlaw mates into action. Worse, the legendary charisma that Jagger exudes onstage is mostly absent from Ned Kelly, so even bit players command greater attention simply by giving committed performances.
In Jagger’s meager defense, it’s not as if Ned Kelly would have been a spectacular film even with a better leading man. Directed by journeyman Tony Richardson, whose films often boasted more intensity than discipline, Ned Kelly explores the trite subject matter of a working-class criminal whose exploits lift him to folk-hero status, and the movie romanticizes Kelly so unrelentingly that frog-throated country crooner Waylon Jennings appears on the soundtrack singing ballads about Kelly during the picture’s many montages. These fanciful elements clash with the movie’s grimy production design, suggesting that Richardson was unsure whether to celebrate, or merely document, his subject.
As did the real Ned Kelly, Jagger’s character turns to horse thievery when paying work proves scarce, eventually enlisting members of his extended immigrant clan as cohorts in criminality. Most of the picture features dull and interchangeable scenes of Ned and the lads committing crimes and avoiding authorities, relishing their celebrity when they see that rewards for their capture have increased. The somewhat novel climax involves Ned’s gang fashioning handmade armor for a decisive standoff, and Richardson’s filmmaking gets energized in the final moments: The key scene of Jagger facing his enemies while encased in head-to-toe iron has a memorably claustrophobic vibe. However, the fact that the costume is more interesting than the actor inside the costume speaks volumes about why Ned Kelly is mediocre at best.
FYI, several Australian movies were made about Ned Kelly prior to the ’70s, a low-rent comedy about the character was made in 1993 by Aussie comedian Yahoo Serious, and Heath Ledger starred in a big-budget 2003 flop that was also titled Ned Kelly.
Ned Kelly: FUNKY