Rock’s Bad Boy Mick Jagger Is Not Bad Enough for 'Ned Kelly'

Tony Richardson’s 1970 Down Under biopic Ned Kelly provides lovingly filmed scenery--including the Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger--but, in this version of the folk legend, bad boy Ned seldom seems to be the “wild colonial boy”.

Ned Kelly

Director: Tony Richardson
Cast: Mick Jagger, Clarissa Kaye
Distributor: Olive Films
Rated: PG
Studio: MGM
US DVD release date: 2015-07-07

Australian bad boy/folk hero Ned Kelly -- sometimes compared with the United States’ post-Civil War outlaw Jesse James -- has been the subject of several film biographies in the past century. Like James, who was first immortalized in the silent film The James Boys in Missouri (1908), Kelly was the infamous focus of an early Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Writer/director Harry Southwell took a shot at the Kelly story with at least two films during the '20s and '30s, and other directors during ensuing decades tackled the tale of Australia’s most compelling Robin Hood (according to some citizens) or outlaw/murderer (to the constabulary at least).

The arguably best Kelly-based film to date is director Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2003), starring a cast deemed especially remarkable when viewed with a decade’s hindsight: The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger (as Ned Kelly), Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises), Naomi Watts (Birdman), and Geoffrey Rush (the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).

Yet the most intriguing retelling of the Kelly story is undoubtedly director/writer Tony Richardson’s 1970 film starring Rolling Stones’ front man Mick Jagger in the title role. When this Ned Kelly was released, Jagger received less-than-stellar reviews for his acting, and even his appearance seemed suspect to some reviewers. The New York Times review noted that Jagger’s beard “makes him look more Amish than Australian.”

Jagger indeed seems less rugged than might be expected of either the Western or outlaw biopic genre. His famously lush lips attract audience attention during his many close-ups, and his soft-spoken dialogue is less effective when “the wild colonial boy” is required to stand up to local constables or lead his family-based gang on raids. When Ned stands trial for his crimes, he wants the court to heed his words (which also summarize the film’s theme): “Men are made bad by bad treatment.” Kelly made an impression when he uttered such a pronouncement. Jagger seems far less emotionally invested in the line.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Kelly’s story is well known, at least generically if not specifically, by audiences far beyond Australia. Edward “Ned” Kelly quickly learns that poor Irish immigrants are not going to be believed by the local constables whenever there is a dispute over property lines or questions about who owns cattle or horses that might stray across unfenced lands. He believes he is standing up for his family’s rights, but other characters, such as Ma Kelly’s new husband George King (Bruce Barry), explain that the law is seldom fair in a dispute between rich and poor.

At times Ned tries to follow the law, such as encouraging his brother to turn himself in after a break-in--and after an officer tells Ned that his brother will get a light sentence. Instead, the judge’s sentence is much harsher: a two-year prison term. When the family’s matriarch is sentenced for aiding and abetting criminals, Ned begins to commit more serious crimes, including murder, to enact revenge against the society that he feels oppresses his family. Like many an outlaw story told on film, Kelly’s is that of a not-so-bad young man who becomes increasingly violent after run-ins with a less-than-just judicial system and seeks revenge. It's a story that cannot have a happy ending for the outlaw, no matter how much the audience may like him.

From the film’s opening moments, even those unfamiliar with the Ned Kelly legend know how the story ends. The film begins with The End centered on screen, followed by a black-and-white series of images of Ned on his way to the gallows, culminating in his hanging. After this introduction, the film presents The Beginning, with a shift to color and the backstory that leads Ned to his painful fate. Dialogue also foreshadows future troubles. When Kelly’s mother (Clarissa Kaye) tries to get him to smile, she reprimands him: “Don’t be looking like a man on the gallows.” Shortly after young Ned has been released from an early prison term, he vows “They’re never ever going to get me in there again.”

Despite the familiar (and telegraphed) plot, Richardson’s Ned Kelly is worth audiences’ 113 minutes simply because of the film’s evocative cinematography that captures the natural beauty of the mid-19th century Australian backcountry. Scenes emphasize the scenery as much as the action. During a twilight jaunt to steal some horses, Ned and his crew are silhouetted against the setting sun, creating a timeless image of men and animals in the rustic landscape. In the morning, while the Kellys paint new markings on the horses before they sell them, the camera focuses on the outlaws’ campsite, with autumn-leafed trees mirrored in the tranquil river.

The soundtrack provides its own ode to nature. Crickets break the evening's silence; a breeze ruffles the leaves on a spring morning; horses’ hooves pound a dusty road; a peacock’s cry alerts the Kelly family of Ned’s return; a dog howls incessantly during a standoff between the Kellys and the officers intent on capturing them. Such sounds become the aural focus in many scenes without music or dialogue.

Whereas the sounds of nature help establish the ambiance of Outback life, songs richly distributed throughout the film effectively tell Ned Kelly’s story. During the late '60s-early '70s, Westerns sometimes employed musical interludes, including pop songs, to complement the action [e.g., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)]. Ned Kelly takes the musical “voiceover” to a new level; Waylon Jennings sings the story that audiences are watching on screen.

One song, the rousing “Blame It On the Kellys”, illustrates the height of the Kellys’ reign. While Jennings sings, Ned leads his merry men on a raid of a rich rancher’s home, at one point prancing around the carriage they have just robbed. The outlaws steal and don fancy clothes and, with the "host" family held captive, sit down to eat their dinner. Ned also steals a kiss from a widow, who is smitten with the attractive outlaw, even though she is on her way to a funeral. Ned’s flirtation encourages her to make sure a letter he has written reaches court officials.

The increasingly humorous lyrics about what citizens can blame on the Kellys, who are wanted for crimes they did not commit as often as for those they engineered, provide an entertaining soundtrack for the “Robin Hood” segment of the film portraying the Kellys as enchanting rogues. All too soon, however, the film turns serious again, as Ned and his followers face a showdown with the law that leads full circle to the trial sealing his fate.

The newly released Blu-ray from Olive Films doesn't include extras, but that is to be expected of a 1970 release. The film has transferred well to the small screen, in part because Richardson embraces the use of facial close-ups to emphasize characters’ emotions or to highlight key dialogue. Such close-ups, which might seem overly large on a cinema screen, are just right for home viewing. The cinematic poetry of landscape shots also are well worth pausing the disc or replaying a scene.

If only Jagger could be as interesting as the cinematography. When Kelly begins his crime spree, Mr. Whitty (John Dease), a rich cattleman seeking Kelly’s quick capture, advises a constable that “the sooner you take the flashness out of him, the better.” The man far better known for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” unfortunately lacks much flash as Ned Kelly, but Ned Kelly is far more interesting than might be suggested by Jagger’s performance. Director Richardson, who co-wrote the script with Ian Jones, has produced a film with visually stunning outdoor cinematography. Visiting Ned Kelly’s 19th century Australia is a good reason to revisit 1970’s Ned Kelly.

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