Every interpretation of the Kelly story brings with it a host of conflicting perspectives on various points, and each is unique. More recent film depictions have been executed more artfully than the early silent films or even early “talkies”. Whereas the formative depictions of the story were usually morality plays, emphasising the social ramifications of lawlessness, the rise of the understanding of film as an artform changed the approach many directors and writers took. Gregor Jordan’s contribution is no exception. It is not a depiction of a historical figure, rather it’s an interpretation of the cultural figure of Ned Kelly that seeks to explore the idea of a man being shaped and guided by external forces to his doom.
Jordan’s film is crafted from a John Michael McDonagh screenplay based on the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine. Just as the book moves away from history for the sake of artistic expression, the film steps away from the history as well as the book both for artistic purposes and marketability (the latter being driven by executives rather than the creative team). This has riled many history buffs who had hoped to see the history brought to life on screen, but this is most definitely not that. It must be highlighted that the film differs drastically from the book in many areas also, thus any interpretation of the film text is not reflective of the source novel, just as much as it is not reflective of history, and must be viewed on its own terms.
He wasn’t such a bad fella. He… he was just a dumb paddy who got picked on his whole life. And that does something to your pride, you know?
Jordan’s Ned is a man with a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and is a passive protagonist. The events in the story that shape his life have nothing to do with the decisions he makes, he merely enacts a pre-conceived narrative. While Ned is brash and prone to explosions of temper his actions have no real effect on the outcome of events. This is most conspicuous in the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident when Ned is accused of injuring the constable despite not being present. He seeks an alibi but is denied, locking in his fate. It is then that he goes into hiding and his mother is jailed. Neither Ned’s participation, nor indeed his presence, was required to affect him becoming a bushranger. Even the act of taking Kennedy’s watch at Stringybark Creek plays out without any explanation of the protagonist’s motivation, it is simply part of the pre-conceived narrative.
None of his actions prevent the bad things from happening and nothing he does results in the undoing of the undesirable outcomes. By the end Ned has become resigned to this and when Hare unexpectedly appears and asks for Ned’s sash, he is met merely with a look of weary indifference – nothing Ned could say or do would matter because it would happen anyway.
Of course, there is an easy explanation for this fixation on destiny. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his life being acted out before the audience. This is demonstrated by the voice-over narrating the story throughout. Ned is unable to see how his actions could have resulted in the outcomes that he found himself subject to and thus we are not shown anything that could condemn him. The effect is that Ned is merely following a script and is little more than a puppet of fate. This sense of determinism is the desperate rationalising of events to make sense of a life gone astray.
Ned is thrown in gaol over a suspected stolen horse but we’re never shown anything to contextualise the event other than Ned finding a horse then being assaulted by police. The police are bullies who pick on the Kellys, but again there’s no context given beyond them being Kellys and Irish and the police not liking them for that. This trend for oversimplified cause and effect creates a sense of there being no control over things – they just are. We don’t know why the police at Stringybark Creek are carrying stretchers in the middle of the bush, but this is all it takes to confirm Ned’s belief that he would be gunned down. There’s no suggestion that the police may simply arrest him. All of this indicates Ned twisting the events in his mind to justify the way they turned out in such a manner that he is not at fault.
Further to this is the way that the supporting players are portrayed. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his gang, his family, the police and public, but of course it is all determined by its relationship to himself. Joe Byrne is Ned’s closest friend, but depicted as a womaniser and keenly intelligent, always at Ned’s beck and call. This is in contrast to Ned’s comparative sexual repression, lack of education and his natural leadership. Joe is the yin to Ned’s yang; the Horatio to Ned’s Hamlet, always on hand to confirm Ned’s suspicions or bounce ideas off. Dan Kelly is depicted as an impulsive runt. He is brash and somewhat arrogant but just as devoted to his family as his big brother, despite harbouring ill-feelings towards their deceased father. Ned takes on that paternal role and we see their relationship develop in such a way that Ned becomes something of a sage for Dan, offering wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Steve Hart however is shown as petulant, flaky and mischievous with a cowardly streak. Ned seems to look at him as little more than an inconvenience and is not afraid to belittle him. For all their differences, one thing unites this gang, which is a complete subservience to and admiration of Ned.
Then we see how the various other characters relate to Ned: Julia falls in love with him to the extent of cheating on her husband because he is so much more manly; Kate adores him and sees him as the family’s protector; the police fear Ned while also having a begrudging respect for him; Aaron views Ned with admiration but this soon gives way to fear once he starts helping the police. In essence, the characterisation of the cast is almost entirely derived from how they view Ned, or rather how Ned imagines they view him.
I am a widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed!
This leads us to Ned’s perception of himself. By the way many events play out we see Ned as charming, attractive, playful, witty, tough, commanding and, moreover, popular. Everyone knows who he is wherever he goes, even if they occasionally need their memory jogged at gunpoint. When we see the Jerilderie robbery, Ned’s passion and charisma as he dictates his letter in front of a crowd whips them into a frenzy, chiming in to help him create memorable insults directed towards the police. Whenever Ned speaks people listen and even the police can’t help crack a smile when they think of how devilishly clever and witty he is.
I’ve watched gravel fade. Dust settle into crust. I’ve seen drips of water turn to stone that defied gravity. I’ve turned blood red with cave mud. I’ve been a bloody rock!
The film’s extremely gloomy, desaturated palette echoes the increasingly burdened state of mind of Ned. As the film is framed as Ned telling his own story, naturally the atmosphere is reflective of Ned’s own feelings, embodying his essence. The flatness and sparseness of the locations is also indicative of Ned’s emotional connections to the places we visit in the story. While in reality the Kellys lived near the foot of a large, smooth hill dotted with trees and covered in grass, albeit prone to drought, when we see the homestead in the film it juts out of the grey, flat and boggy landscape as if plonked in the middle of nowhere and looks more like his ancestral home, Ireland, than Australia. Ned does not really imagine the surroundings, his only focus is what the house represents – his family. To Ned, it’s his mother and siblings that matter, not the place they live in. Ned is very focused on family and the pain and loss he feels relating to his mother’s imprisonment is signified by a shot of Ellen in her cell, alone and surrounded by darkness except for a patch of light coming from the cell window. His memories of his family are generally bleak bar one: the memory of the day he received his green sash.
Ah, what did Da call me? That’s right. He called me Sunshine.
Here we see his parents beaming with pride, the sun shining brightly upon young Ned as he receives his reward for saving a life, surrounded by people that cheer for him. This is Ned’s “happy place”, the memory he clings to that proves he really is a good person. This is why the reveal of the sash after his capture is so important. It shows how beneath the armour, his outlaw facade, he still clings to this sash as a symbol of something pure and virtuous inside him. The only other time we really see the sunshine and the beauty of the landscape is between Ned’s return home and the Fitzpatrick incident then the gang’s emergence from the fire-decimated landscape. Colour and sunshine and the beauty of nature symbolise hope and optimism. His time working on the Cooks’ station is a happy time as it seems things could be improving for the Kellys, and it serves to drive home how bleak things become afterwards.
They said I’d lost what it meant to be human, maybe never had it in the first place, but wasn’t this about protecting the ones I loved? The ones who gave me food, and shelter, even the clothes on me back? And therefore wasn’t it now a war?
Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film involves the gang, starving and dying of thirst, slaughtering their horses to drink the blood. This is immediately following a huge bushfire that the police cause leaving the gang stranded and struggling to survive. The horses are slaughtered in the dark of night and the gang look like wild men, deranged and filthy. The desperation of their situation is written on their faces in mud, soot and blood. This nightmare is a representation of Ned’s feelings during the height of his outlawry. He is ashamed of what he has become and is desperate to reform his image and so ventures to the only person he can think of that could help him – the only woman who has ever shown him romantic love – Julia Cook. Julia reminds Ned of who he really is and this motivates his crazy scheme at Glenrowan.
They say the trouble with the Irish is that they rely too much on dreams and not enough on gunpowder. Whereas the English were shy on dreams, as usual, but had plenty of the other. Now we had both.
Ned never states definitively what the plan is for Glenrowan. We are given allusions that it’s something big and important as the gang create armour, gather weapons and then re-emerge with clean clothes and haircuts. The town of Glenrowan becomes the base of operations, though what Ned hopes to achieve here is never made clear. Ned gives a speech about how he and his gang are at war with the British Empire and even the London Times. Ned has emerged from the chrysalis of desperation as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. The bizarre mix of people in the inn represents what Ned sees as the common people, the ones who are victimised by the corruption in the power structure. Yet, they are also reflective of the nature of the social and political dimension Ned’s situation has taken on: little more than a bizarre circus. The caged lion that paces and hollers outside is a symbol of Ned’s warrior spirit; ironic and subversive in that the lion is usually the symbol of England, the culture Ned is so opposed to. When the gang emerge in their armour they are chivalrous knights, protecting the downtrodden from the oppression of police and the political construction they represent. We see the ruthlessness of the police as they gun down innocent civilians as they try to escape from the inn. The gang respond by emerging from the shadows like steel automatons and casually decimate the front line of the police despite the fact that it is pitch black, raining and they are wearing helmets that restrict their vision. The gang avenge those who have been struck down by the cruelty of the police before being forced to head back inside. This is where Ned decides to make his last stand.
Whereas in history Ned’s last stand occurred as he returned to the inn from behind police lines, in this interpretation it is portrayed as Ned venturing out to fight the police single-handedly to create enough of a distraction for the captives to escape. The last stand now becomes a noble and selfless act whereby Ned saves the surviving captives at the cost of his own freedom and, in effect, his life. Naturally without Ned to lead them, the rest of the gang end up dead and the scene of what should have been Ned’s greatest victory goes up in flames. Ned wanders through the bizarre, alien landscape with its camels and pelting rain, only to collapse metres behind the police. The dead lion signifies the death of Ned’s spirit. He realises that he was never destined to succeed and when he regains consciousness again he fires on the police and is quickly taken down. His survival beyond this maiming seems to add insult to injury as he lies gasping under the weight of his armour, the very thing that saved his life from gunfire now little more than an embodiment of his crushing defeat resulting in a demeaning death at the end of a rope.
Such is life.
This is perhaps one of the most unusual interpretations yet of the Kelly story, as it is in essence a warped portrayal played out in the memories of a doomed man. The inaccuracies become the artifice that demonstrates the unreliable nature of a narrator assured of the notion that his life was predetermined and all of his actions, no matter how nefarious or altruistic, were incapable of altering the course of his destiny. Everyone is in awe of the protagonist either through fear or respect as he does a marionette dance from one happenstance to another. This is the story of a man shaped by external forces to become the most hunted man in the British Empire and destined to die an ignominious death as a young man fighting a war he cannot possibly win. There is no real moral lesson to this story, merely the depressing realisation that life rarely turns out the way we want it to.