Jane Got a Gun (15)

Three stars

Dir: Gavin O'Connor

With: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor

SOME pictures lack all the luck. This western appeared to be one of them as along the way from its announcement in 2012 it lost a director (Scotland’s Lynne Ramsay) and several high profile actors reportedly attached to the project (Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper).

Finally, after too long with the label “troubled” attached to its name, Jane Got a Gun moseys into view. And a fairly decent piece it turns out to be. Be warned though, it is about as plain and stripped back to the bare wood as its title. Not for director Gavin O’Connor any fancy, Tarantinoesque spins on a familiar genre.

Most of the viewing pleasure to be had comes courtesy of Natalie Portman, who is producer (alongside Bob and Harvey Weinstein and several others) as well as star. The story opens in the New Mexico Territory in 1871. Jane and her young daughter are females alone on the wild frontier, waiting for husband and daddy to return, and getting on with life in the meantime.

When he does turn up, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) is the worse for wear - not from drink but from the attentions of his old pals turned enemies the Bishop boys, led by John Bishop (Scotland’s Ewan McGregor). It is bad enough that Bill has been tussling again with outlaws from his past, but, as he tells Jane, they are following him home to continue the fight. Jane now has to do what a woman has to do - but what is that precisely? And where does her nearest neighbour Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) fit in?

O’Connor (who helmed the sports drama Warrior with Edgerton and Tom Hardy, and the crime drama Pride and Glory, with Ed Norton and Colin Farrell) spends the next 98 minutes filling us in. Much of this is done in flashbacks, always a risky move as it takes the audience out of the here and now and puts the action on pause. It is not just Jane’s tale that is told largely in flashback, we find out Dan’s, Bill’s, and John’s stories this way too. The result of all this to-ing and fro-ing is that the picture takes an age to get going after a taut, promising beginning.

Jane Got a Gun is of the realist school when it comes to pioneer life. There is no Little House on the Prairie sugar coating here (though the late lamented television series had its moments). Life is hard, the law is a long way away, and problems have to be sorted out through talking or shooting.

Portman makes a convincing frontierswoman as she rides out to protect her home and family. We can see she is made of the right stuff, but is she naturally that way or has she been shaped by landscape and life? Speaking of the surroundings, O’Connor takes a wide view of Jane’s world whenever possible, emphasising how much the early settlers were mere specks of dust in a vast territory, their fates arriving on the wind.

The star of Black Swan and Brothers barely leaves the screen. This is a western in which woman, or rather one woman, rules the roost, and the key scenes are always Portman with one of her leading men. Edgerton gives a satisfying shape to his character, a veteran of the Civil War, while Emmerich does not have a lot to do as Bill but does it well. Best of all, for the air of menace which hangs over them, are the scenes between Portman and McGregor, playing a dangerous charmer.

After all the flashback-induced pauses, it is time for the story to get going proper, and O’Connor does not disappoint. Unfortunately for him, one cannot help but wonder what Ramsay, director of Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin, would have done with the picture. As it is, Jane Got a Gun plays out conventionally but effectively, with those who like their westerns straight-shooting likely to leave the picture feeling they have had their money’s worth.