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The Australian outlaw martyr Ned Kelly is as central to his country’s cultural mythos as Robin Hood and Jesse James are to theirs, though attempts to enshrine the bushranger icon on film have been as dire as they’ve been numerous: Neds of years past include comedy stylist Yahoo Serious (Reckless Kelly, 1993), aging Australian-rules footballer Bob Chitty (The Glenrowan Affair, 1951), and one Mick Jagger, who flounced across the outback in Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1970) whining of his exploits in an unaccountable Truman Capote drawl. Steely-eyed, rumble-voiced Heath Ledger, title character of Gregor Jordan’s stately but stolid tribute, is at least the right age (Kelly was hanged at age 25 in 1880), but the plaster of popular sainthood can stiffen an actor’s joints—Ledger seems scarcely less expressive inside his faceplate and harness (during the movie’s protracted gunfight climax) than out.
Dirt-poor Ned looks every inch the knight on a white horse when he rides a snowy stray into town, a display of airs uppity enough to get him thrown into jail for presumed theft. Son of an Irishman who won a “free fare” to Australia for stealing sheep, Ned may not play the part of the lowborn criminal, but her majesty’s constables repeatedly cast him in the role anyway—and make off with his property, and raid his mother’s home, and harass his sister. Soon the fed-up Kelly gang—Ned, his brother Dan (Laurence Kinlan), and pals Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) and Steve Hart (Philip Barantini)—have taken to the woods and the bank robbery circuit; a handful of self-defense cop killings not only swells the bounty on their heads but their celebrity cachet among fellow common folk from the old country. The Victorian police, frustrated in their mission to capture the felons, arrest scores of their friends and neighbors instead, a tactic that would echo a century later in similar dragnets of supposedly IRA-friendly Northern Irish nabes.
Ned Kelly is as anti-authoritarian as its director’s previous feature, the scattershot army clock-cleaning Buffalo Soldiers, but Jordan and screenwriter John Michael McDonagh (adapting Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine) eschew satire or allegory for an intermittently serene, murkily transcendental detachment—or indifference, in the case of Naomi Watts’s stick-on love interest. A contemplative western that trails the brute boot prints of empire as its minions tame a frontier, the film marks a welcome departure from the usual rah-rah machismo of the semi-nationalist action adventure, but Jordan never escapes the mighty shadow of The Thin Red Line—from the grace-note inserts of exotic birds, snakes, and foliage to Ledger’s laconic, sometimes haiku-like voice-over to Klaus Badelt’s embarrassingly Zimmer-derivative score. As an adoring salute to an obsession-inspiring hero, Ned Kelly could take the alternate title Terrence Malick.
Prosaic as its moniker, Two Men Went to War—also based on true events—follows a veteran sergeant (Kenneth Cranham) and a callow private (Leo Bill) who go AWOL from the Royal Army Dental Corps in a fishing boat to infiltrate a remarkably permeable occupied France in 1942. John Henderson’s rickety comedy flows in the Brit-blooded vein of gruff, deceptively hapless pluck in the face of Nazi aggression, a tradition exemplified by the ’70s BBC institution Dad’s Army; this time around, the dental duo’s amateur ops succeed in exploding a German signal tower, healing respective insecurities and mutual animosity, and relieving Winston Churchill (David Ryall) from a bout of depression. Two Men is slow and sweet as warm pudding, but Cranham and Derek Jacobi (as one of Churchill’s intelligence officers) both add a generous, wholehearted gravitas the film might have thought to ask for in the first place.