Ned Kelly
Updated May 5, 2003

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Book News Ned Kelly Movie Review

NED KELLY The screenplay
by John Michael McDonagh

Screenplay of the Gregor Jordan/Heath Ledger movie 'Ned Kelly'.
Publisher: Currency Press Pty Ltd
RRP: $21.95 (paperback)
Publication: Available in book stores now,
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Below is a review of the book of the screenplay 'Ned Kelly'. It is not a review of the movie, or the book it was based on ('Our Sunshine' by Robert Drewe). However as this screenplay is directly related to the movie, some comment on the storyline and its accuracy seems required first.

Reactions to this movie have been almost identical to reactions when Peter Carey's book 'True History' was released. Both have either been praised or maligned, with no room in-between. It is worth looking at why fiction based of fact inspires such powerful reactions. Seemingly some people want history presented factually and accurately, and become concerned that the true story will be lost if fictional accounts are written. Others, on the other hand, prefer a 'folk law' quality and, while expecting the essence of the story to be accurate, they want history re-told in new and imaginative ways. In other words, those who hate it are concerned with facts and details and thus probably prefer documentaries, whereas those who love it are interested in the story's essence and so enjoy the narrative. For those who fit the latter category this film and screenplay will suit your taste, but those who identify with the former, neither is for you. There are a number of historical inaccuracies in this version of the Kelly story that are difficult for the more 'purist' Kelly historian to overlook. It must be remembered, however, that neither the film nor the screenplay (nor the book they were both based on), were ever meant to be documentaries, and therefore should not be expected to be historically precise. (Note: The only method of accurately retelling the true history of the Kelly outbreak would be through an impartial documentary or history textbook.)
Despite the historical inaccuracies and omissions, and the dramatic license taken with history in 'Ned Kelly', the essence of the Kelly story is undoubtedly told in this pro-Kelly account. One cannot deny that the injustice suffered by Ned and his family and friends, and their attempt to fight it, are clearly portrayed. Ned Kelly wanted his story told, and regardless of any errors of fact, the essence of his story is currently reaching a huge audience. It is therefore important to evaluate the 'whole package' of this interpretation, rather than its specifics. Also, perhaps we might consider the fact that if people were not allowed to make unrestricted creative versions of Ned's history - then very few, if any, versions with wide audience appeal would ever be produced, or reproduced. Ned's 'voice' would then grow gradually quieter across the generations - rather than louder - and right now it is louder than it ever has been. Essentially, just like Peter Carey's novel, 'Ned Kelly' does just what good fiction should - it becomes the lie that tells the truth.
Having said that, it should be noted that the errors of fact in some places are quite glaring. The fictitious blood drinking and circus scenes startle the audience (rather than engage them) in what is actually a fascinating and compelling true story, merited on facts alone.
For those interested in what was factual and what fiction, click here: Fact or fiction?

"NED: 'Cheer up, now, Mister Curnow, you're a witness to history. How many schoolteachers dream of that?'
He look at them for a moment, then walks out the door."


Included in this book is an interesting 'forward' by the film's director Gregor Jordan. In which he reveals the inspiration for making the film and explains why he chose McDonagh's screenplay of Drewe's novel in particular. He says, "…The strange style of the novel, and the way John had woven this style into the script, was the key." He explains what he saw as some of the more difficult aspects of making a two hour movie about "Australia's greatest legend", and therefore how "…any screenplay, no matter how good, must be a compromise".

By way of a brief summary of Ned's life, this book includes at the start, a history section by filmmaker and critic Peter Galvin. He provides a précis of the Kelly story (after researching it), and includes in his 'notes' a list of his sources. For those with little knowledge of the true events of this part of Australia's history, this section does provide a good, if simple, overview.

There are a few scenes in the screenplay that evidently, due to editing, presumably found their way no further than the 'cutting room' floor, but this is no doubt due to lack of time rather than poor scripting. Scenes missing from the film include; Constable Lonigan's 'blackballing' of Ned (thus the significance of Ned later shooting Lonigan is lost), along with a scene of Steve Hart arguing with Ned over the denied theft of the clergyman's watch, in which an irritated Ned throws him Sgt. Kennedy's watch for consolation. (This missing scene explains why Supt Hare later finds the watch in the ashes.) It would have been better had they been included (hopefully they will wind up on the DVD version when released), but in the meantime, it is nice to be able to read what was intended to be included, and to imagine the scenes had they made it into the film.

Along with the script are simple details of all scenes, and some directions to the actors (e.g. to indicate mood), which are very interesting to read. The book of the screenplay is a must for any of the movie's fans, particularly as it includes a number of close-up stills from the film, (some in colour, some in black & white).
Many real events and characters have been left out of this version of the story, obviously to aid in presenting such a complicated and lengthy story in only a couple of hours on film, and also so the storyline can be easily followed for those with little, or no, knowledge of the true story. The movie has so far inspired very pronounced polar reactions; audiences have either passionately loved - or loathed it. Nevertheless it is a good screenplay and an easy one to read. I recommend this book if you enjoyed the movie!


Review first published 5th May 2003

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