Outlaw Nation

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Review of ’Ned Kelly‘, director Gregor Jordan

Australia at the tail-end of the 19th century was a hard and brutal place. The transportation of convicts had only ended in 1868. The ’freed men‘ - the failed prospectors, the poor - scratched a living of sorts on ’selections‘.

The poor were allowed the free selection of Crown land. It seemed a way out of service or wage slavery, a chance to make a better life. The trouble was that this free selection never lived up to the promise. The best land had already gone, taken by rich squatters who not only had the choice land but - vitally in Australia - also controlled the water sources. They also had the money to make the best of their property. Not surprisingly, squatters and selectors came into conflict - the police, as always, zealously ’protected‘ the property of the rich. To be poor was to be at their mercy. You could go to jail on their word, and if you were Irish you were singled out for special treatment.

Transportation from Britain was not just for ’common criminals‘ - every protest movement, industrial upheaval and agrarian revolt was represented on the transport ships. But after the rebellion in 1798, Australia became the official Siberia for the Irish. As Robert Hughes puts it in his book The Fatal Shore:

’The Irish, on arriving in Australia, were treated as a special class. As bearers of Jacobin contagion, as ideologically and physically dangerous traitors, they were oppressed with special vigilance and unusually hard punishments.‘

This is the background to the Ned Kelly story. In 1867 his widowed mother Ellen selected a small piece of land in the district of Greta, in north eastern Victoria, hoping to sustain herself and her large family of seven young children. But they soon came to the attention of the police. Ned was framed for horse theft, and after serving three years hard labour he and his family were subjected to a gross campaign of harassment by the corrupt Victorian police, which brought at least 19 charges against members of the Kelly family in five years. But in April 1878 Constable Fitzpatrick, a notoriously dishonest local copper, attempted to arrest Ned‘s brother Dan, and accused Ned of shooting at him. To avoid capture the brothers escaped into the bush and into legend.

Gregor Jordan‘s Ned Kelly is a glorious film, beautifully photographed against the Australian landscape, a brilliant weave of fact and fantasy. It brings out the plain humanity of the man, the harshness of his life, his determination to wring what pleasure he could from it, and his absolute refusal to be cowed by those lackeys of the rich, the police. It doesn‘t shy away from the ugliness of violence, but it distinguishes between the casual brutality of the police and the violence used by those fighting against an unjust and inequitable system, and leaves you with no doubt of whose side it is on.

Heath Ledger is tremendous as Kelly. This is no ordinary bushranger, but a man pushed too far, fighting not just for himself but his class. This is underlined by Kelly‘s Jerilderie letter - a political manifesto addressed to the governor of Victoria and a call to arms to the downtrodden selectors of Victoria - and by the refusal of anyone to inform on the gang despite the rewards and the imprisonment of family and friends (actually there is one informer, but only one).

The film moves inevitably towards the final showdown where Kelly attempts to meet the police on his own terms, a battle between good and evil. But when Kelly is finally captured even Superintendent Hare, brought over from South Africa especially to catch the Kelly Gang, is in no doubt he is in the presence of a better man than he. Ned Kelly was just 25 years old when they hanged him, but this film shows why, wherever people fight back against oppression, Kelly lives.