NED KELLY (1970)
Ned Kelly wasn’t just a troubled outlaw dogged by lawmen. He also gave his name to an equally fraught film bedevilled with problems of its own. Back in the early 1960s it was meant to be a project to team up Karel Reisz and Albert Finney after Finney’s great success with TOM JONES. However, the cost of being forced to take a mostly British crew to shoot in Australia pushed the budget too high. This was before the release of TOM JONES which would have given them much more leeway and clout to ask for more resources. The film was abandoned in that form but later picked up on by Finney’s director on his last film and co-written with Ned Kelly expert Ian Jones. The addition of Mick Jagger in the title role promised something intriguing.
The story is the almost mythical tale of the benevolent young Irish-Australian Kelly, who initially somewhat reluctantly becomes a celebrity outlaw, a latter-day Robin Hood figure, one step ahead of the law till he is brought down in an undignified shoot-out with the cops while encased in home-made armour.
On the day that Mick Jagger’s role in NED KELLY was announced, he left his home to find himself beseiged by plain-clothes police officers. The force clearly had an agenda to keep hounding him since his discharge from the Redlands drug bust in 1967. The timing was suspiciously indicative of a tip-off from within the Rolling Stones’ inner circle. Both Mick and his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull were charged with joint possession of a quarter of a pound of cannabis. Lucikly, the second hearing allowed him to keep the filming of NED KELLY in his schedule and off he went to Australia with Faithfull.
Jagger’s problems continued almost as soon as he arrived down under, with Faithfull attempting suicide, the second of his girlfriends to try this after Chrissie Shrimpton. This was due to a mixture of Brian Jones’ death, her feeling of isolation in a relationship with Mick and excessive drug use. Whilst she underwent hospital treatment, he and the director had to handle press conferences and then get to work on location in New South Wales.
The filming was dogged with ill-luck; continual crew illnesses, a fire that destroyed many of the costumes and a backfiring prop pistol that burned Jagger’s hand. It was a struggle to stay focused especially as he felt duty-bound to be turning out material for his band during the filming. He penned the lyrics for ‘Brown Sugar’ for example during this period, though with the less subtle title of ‘Black Pussy’.
There’s no denying Jagger’s sincerity in approaching the part. He told the press: “I want to concentrate on being a character actor”. But if homework and intention translated into success, the acting profession would be overburdened with even more labelled ‘geniuses’ that it already is. Unlike PERFORMANCE, his portrayal here is patchy. Whilst his previous film was set in more familiar territory, he doesn’t quite sit convincingly in this world. To be fair, there are many trained, experienced actors who find it hard to adapt to a period milieu. (Imagine Bruce Willis as a cowboy or a Victorian gentleman). Mick comes across as sweet and charming in the early scenes where he is not saddled with a cause to make. His accent is classic sing-song leprechaun ‘Oirish’, yet once again he’s not the first or last non-Irish actor to fall foul of this deceptively difficult accent.
Jagger is capable in the action scenes, but also uncomfortable at other times, hindered it has to be said by some clunky ‘period’ dialogue that a greater talent would find hard to weave naturalism from. He defends his reputation with such clangers as asserting “My conscience is as clear as the snow in Peru”. He later declaims: “I’ll make those stiff-necked unicorns wish they’d never heard the name of Kelly”. You can see what I mean. Even Kelly himself would labour in vain to hammer out quality workmanship from this coal-scuttle of a text.
Whilst we’re on the subject of Kelly’s make-shift armour, the one rousingly effective scene is the climactic battle with the police, where briefly we see the action through the eye slit point-of-view of his scuttle helmet as he attacks the cops amidst the smoke on the railway tracks. When he is wounded into submission however, fans of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL may gain unintentional laughs from his flailing, reminiscent of the similarly never-say-die Black Knight.
Another annoying feature of NED KELLY is the large amount of ADR post-dubbing of the voices. Some may have been due to unavoidable location sound problems, but not only does it alienate the viewer slightly, it also looks like two of the performances may have been dubbed by other actors, namely the overly posh police officer and the stereotypically Jewish rustler whose post-voice sounds more dubiously anti-semitic than Ron Moody’s Fagin in OLIVER.
Kelly is made to hang by the Judge. We already know this at the start in a nicely sepia-toned prologue. Kelly scorns the judgement, fearing death loftily “As little as to drink a cup of tea”. He then tells the Judge triumphantly “I’ll see you there” and points emphatically down to hell, a final defiant image freeze-frame ending.
If only the film-makers could afford to be equally insouciant. NED KELLY failed at the box office. Sadly, it followed the initially unsuccessful run of PERFORMANCE, but unlike Donald Cammell’s masterpiece lacks any repeat resonance or cult interest to have developed a second life. It’s a curio, but ultimately no more than that.