*/**** | Image B- Sound C
starring Mick Jagger, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Mark McManus, Ken Goodlet
screenplay by Tony Richardson and Ian Jones
directed by Tony Richardson
by Walter Chaw Somewhere between the islets of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just off the coast of Performance and Mad Dog Morgan, floats Tony Richardson's less visited, incomprehensible, woefully miscalculated Ned Kelly. Edited with a cheese grater and scored with bizarre faux-Aussie folk by strange bedfellows Shel Silverstein and Waylon Jennings, all while giving lie to David Mamet-as-director's claims to originality in dispensing with exposition in favour of oblique, impenetrable dialogue and stilted performances, Ned Kelly is also home to one of the worst performances by a rock star in a world that knows Graffiti Bridge and Glitter. Really just the kissing cousin of such of its contemporary counter-cultural misfires as Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the panicked 1970 policy of giving the kids what they want, whatever that might be, is filtered here through the disturbing prism of a 42-year-old Englishman's perspective. (Admittedly, as angry young men go, Mick Jagger is a better choice than Breckinridge's Rex Reed.) Curiously though, as it so often does, the rare convergence of everything gone wrong makes for pretty compulsive viewing.
Jagger's accent vacillates between his own trademark affected dandy to a slightly brogue-tinged affected dandy, only dedicating itself completely to unfathomable burr in the film's requisite "Elvis in a movie" contrivance of having its comparative media hero break into song. Unfortunate to say the least, the casting of Jagger as folk hero outlaw Kelly wobbles under the weight of Jagger's bee-stung lips, delicate prance, and rooster stilts--the troubles with his physicality matched by his propensity to thrust his arm forward when shooting a pistol and his obvious discomfort on horseback. The same thing that made David Bowie so good as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth makes Jagger ridiculous as a POME Robin Hood. Not helping things is Richardson's oatmeal-bland direction, so static and without even the basics of filmcraft. Every scene that includes an extra has one of them looking directly into the camera, while every scene with Jagger is one that would only feel right with the silhouettes of Servo and Crow in the extreme foreground.
With the current Heath Ledger/Naomi Watts incarnation of Ned Kelly unreleased in most markets (something that doesn't appear as though it'll be remedied anytime soon, as it's done bupkis in L.A. and New York) and already on home video in European territories, Richardson's film is poised to capitalize on whatever interest might be rekindled in an Australian outlaw of Irish parentage, riding around killing the right people in the late nineteenth century. Be warned that this Ned Kelly is chockablock with amateur and just plain bad performances, ear-bleedlingly awful dialogue, and, if not for an agreeably bizarre climactic shootout that actually rings a little with realism for its bloodletting and general air of chaotic confusion (it bears noting that Ned Kelly features the most realistic, decidedly non-cinematic blood I've ever seen in a film), the picture would be a complete wash.
MGM releases Ned Kelly on DVD in a fine-looking (though non-anamorphic) 1.66:1 widescreen presentation that sports an admirable minimum of grain or other print defects. Chief of the transfer's problems lie in its brightness, as a lack thereof casts several of the night scenes in almost complete dark. Since the bulk of the film's conclusion--its best part--is set at night, this is decidedly a problem, though one I'm more inclined to blame on Richardson's and DP Gerry Fisher's lighting philosophy (or devouring incompetence) than on the transfer itself. Still, why bother doing it in the digital age if you're not going to spruce it up a little? A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track fares less well, sounding tinny most of the time and removed all of the time. (Again, most likely the source and not the remaster.) There are no extras on the disc save the typical skippable MGM reel that trumpets catalogue titles upon loading. Originally published: April 7, 2004.