Ned Kelly was a let down. Not since In a Savage Land have I been this disappointed with an Australian film, and for mostly the same reasons. With all that money and talent, both in front of and behind the camera, I foolishly got my expectations up before seeing Ned Kelly. It’s not that Ned Kelly is a bad film in itself, in fact it’s quite good (and a lot better in many ways than In a Savage Land), it’s just not what I was hoping for.
I saw the film on it’s first Saturday night screening here in Brisbane. The first thing I noticed was that the cinema was barely two-thirds full. Ordinarily, this would be a pretty damn good turn out for an Australian film. But this isn’t your average Australian film. Ned Kelly had a big budget by Australian standards, a fair amount of publicity, and was based around a well-established historical legend. These things are unusual to have for local films. It’s tempting to conclude that for such a major Australian film in its first week to not have a full house means either there hasn’t been enough good publicity, or the subject matter of the film just doesn’t interest audiences. At such an early stage of its theatrical run, negative word of mouth can’t be blamed. Then again, mainstream Australian audiences do tend to stay away from Australian films, alas — I don’t like this fact, but it’s undeniable, and any Australian film has to battle to get the local audiences to put their (well founded) prejudices aside and show up to a screening of an Australian film. It’s hard to convince the locals to give any Australian film a fair go these days.
The film’s eventual box office figures will tell the true story, I guess, but based on the audience reaction I observed I’m not optimistic. I wish it well.
As for the film itself, I mostly enjoyed it, but I can enjoy a wide range of films and I’m used to watching old films with slower pacing. So while I was admiring the wonderful cinematography, and the mostly fine performances, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the audience were often fidgeting and even chatting during some of the slower scenes. Sure, this happens in most films to some extent, but when large parts of the audience seem unengaged or uninterested even by the climactic gun fight scene, as they were in the screening I attended, then something isn’t working. Also, the ending of the film seemed very abrupt, and as people filed out I heard several comments along the same vein. I suspect people were expecting to see some of Ned’s trial.
I think that I, and most of the audience, were hoping for the audience-pleasing-thrills of Last of the Mohicans with, I dunno, maybe a bit of the action and stylistic camera moves from films like Mad Max or Jordan’s own Two Hands etc thrown in, plus the big fake whiskers of Mad Dog Morgan (don’t ask for much do I?). In other words, I was hoping for an exciting, US-market-friendly mainstream film that wasn’t overly concerned with historical accuracy, being important, or respecting its subject matter too much. But what I got was more like the gloominess of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith with the seriousness and slower pace of Lantana. The film’s narrative is so straight ahead, it’s almost as if the filmmakers were too concerned at offending us by taking liberties with the Ned Kelly story (though I suspect that the token love interest was added to the film without any historical evidence).
Ah well, at least the film delivered the big fake whiskers from Mad Dog Morgan — Peter Phelps was wearing a pair of sideburns/beards that would have frightened a Yeti!