Australia's devotion to its most famous 19th-century outlaw is likely to remain a mystery to non-Aussies, despite the exertions of Ned Kelly. The legend is a fiery one: Kelly (the son of an Irish convict transported Down Under) rose up against the Australian police system's mistreatment of its underclass, killed cops in a showdown of honor, formed a gang that included his best friend, Joe Byrne, stole from the rich to give to the poor in a series of spectacular bank robberies, became a folk hero (with the world's largest bounty on his head), defied capture until a horrific shoot-out, and was all of 25 when he was hanged in 1880. But the mournful, ''human-size'' retelling preferred by Gregor Jordan (''Buffalo Soldiers''), a boggy mix of fact, fiction, and changeable wigs and beards worn by Heath Ledger in the title role, manages to shrink the grandness of the myth without clarifying our understanding of the man.
It's too simple to say that Ledger just isn't the actor for the role, or that Jordan isn't the right indie-oriented filmmaker to give an old, often-told saga new traction. Ledger is a strapping, squared-off cutie made, it would seem, for roles of hale blondness, but his energy falters in the perpetual emotional shadows in which the brunet Kelly is shown to live. (Colin Farrell is now the young star to beat at this temperament.) And when the effortlessly charismatic Orlando Bloom, as Byrne, dims our interest in Ledger every time the two share a scene -- well, that's a problem of balance unknown to Newman and Redford as ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.''
''Ned Kelly'' doesn't sell the chemistry between Kelly and Naomi Watts as the wealthy, married Australian Englishwoman who attracts him (although we are mildly diverted by looking for signs of the offscreen romance between Ledger and Watts). Geoffrey Rush plays the steely Superintendent Francis Hare, who's pursuing Kelly, by recycling the showy grimness he applied to his Inspector Javert in 1998's ''Les Misérables.'' Only as the shocking endgame draws near -- a final battle uniting innocent townspeople with desperate gang members in brutal deaths -- does ''Ned Kelly'' momentarily convey the power of the legend, as well as the true story behind it.