Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Matthew Holmes
Stars: Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, William Lee, Joanne Dobbin, Gregory Quinn, Callan McAuliffe, Arthur Angel, Angus Pilakui, Andy McPhee, Pia Grace Moon, John Orcsik, Ben Chisholm, Jana Wilkes.
Australia’s bushranger history is rich material for filmmakers. Ned Kelly’s rebellious spirit is embedded in our national psyche and he still hogs much of the limelight from that period. There have been two major films exploring Kelly’s life, and we’ve had a number of other films about famous bushrangers and that whole period of history, with the 1957 version of Robbery Under Arms and 1976’s Mad Dog Morgan featuring an over the top and deranged performance from Dennis Hopper in the title role. But somewhat surprisingly there has never been a feature film about the notorious bushranger Ben Hall who is a significant figure in our history and whose story is equally as compelling. There have been a couple of silent films from 1911 and a television miniseries in 1975.
Australian filmmaker Matthew Holmes attempts to redress that imbalance with this well researched and historically accurate film that deconstructs the myths surrounding Hall. He carried out many raids in New South Wales until he was controversially shot to death by police in 1865. Hall never actually killed anybody during his crimes. However after two policemen are killed in a botched robbery Hall was nonetheless declared an outlaw by the authorities, which meant that he and his companions could be killed by anyone at any time.
Unlike Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly, which explored the reasons behind him becoming an outlaw to make him appear a more sympathetic character, The Legend Of Ben Hall mainly concentrates on the last few months of his life. Given that he is separated from his wife Biddy (Joanne Dobbin) and estranged from his young son, we are meant to feel a measure of sympathy for him. Holmes has tried to depict Hall as an anti-hero with a strong anti-authoritarian nature which was common to many other bushrangers. The film also looks at the complex nature of his relationship with other members of his gang as well as looking at how he was regarded generally by a population still largely suspicious of the police.
Much of the film was shot around the Forbes area where Hall himself roamed, giving the material an sense of authenticity. The sets, costumes and locations all reek of authenticity. Cinematographer Peter Szilveszter gives the film an epic quality with his wide screen lensing which captures some of the bushland locations, giving the film a strong sense of atmosphere. He gives the film the look and feel of a classic western.
Holmes has cast the film with largely unknown actors, but he took care to ensure that they closely resemble their real life counterparts. This is the feature film debut for Jack Martin, but unfortunately he seems a little stolid as Hall and his delivery of lines is a little wooden. The best performance comes from Jamie Coffa (the tv mini-series Gallipoli, etc) who brings a volatile energy and dangerous edge to his performance as fellow outlaw and maniacal wild card John Gilbert. Holmes apparently plans to make a film about the exploits of Gilbert, giving Coffa another chance to shine. William Lee is given little of note to do as fellow outlaw John Dunn, the newest member of Hall’s gang. Gregory Quinn also is strong as the police sergeant obsessed with capturing Hall.
The Legend Of Ben Hall actually began as a 40 minute film financed largely by a kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, but was later developed into this full length feature. It is an ambitious undertaking that remains faithful to the chronology of Hall’s final months. However, Holmes’ direction is at times a little pedestrian and tentative, and he fails to inject a palpable sense of tension into the material. There are a few flat spots throughout its overly generous 139 minute running time that will have audiences checking their watches. And although Holmes has drawn upon actual archival material for much of the dialogue some of it rings false and sounds cliched.