Heath Ledger stars in the title role, along with Orlando Bloom and Naomi Watts. After many less contemporary and more sentimentalized versions of the legend, this film strives for authenticity, psychological complexity, and a proper amount of reluctant heroism. Ned and his family are not much liked by the local police and react to harassment with Irish passion. When they arrest his mother and put her in the Melbourne Gaol, Ned is driven to the life of an outlaw, killing several police officers in the process. Much effort is made to establish that he did not want things to turn out this way. He becomes a kind of Robin Hood, robbing banks to keep his small band of men together and to help those who protect him with their silence. Geoffrey Rush is a police official who comes out from the city to lead the campaign to capture Ned, who has become a folk hero to the nation and has grown a full bushy beard.
The Kelly Gang waylays a small circus caravan, carrying a camel, a monkey, and a lion, enlisting them to their defense. They occupy a town and await the oncoming train full of police. When the inevitable army of one hundred officers arrives on a dark and rainy night. Ned and the three others in the gang meet them in suits of armor improvised from household utensils. It is a terrible firefight and many, including several of the circus people, are killed. Even the lion dies.
It is never clear what the circus was meant to do, other than provide a much-needed lighter touch. The gang is driven back into a saloon where the others are sheltered. Later Ned goes back out alone in his iconic armor. He is wounded repeatedly; so is Rush. He even seems to rise up again like St. George after the shooting has ended. He is captured and put on a train for Melbourne. A print legend says that despite a petition with thousands of signatures he was hanged in 1880 at the age of twenty-five.
A documentary on the DVD, Ned Kelly: Cultural Icon, provides a review of the historical facts and a survey of treatments of the legend in several media. The point is made that the legend helped build Australian identity. Most interesting are the scenes from the 1970 film featuring Mick Jagger. His performance is disappointing, giving the culture hero the quality of a twit. Cinemania says the Ned Kelly movies emphasized “the Irish-British conflict at the heart of this story.” See also Mad Dog Morgan in David Gulpilil Movies.