Matthew Holmes revisits the last days of an Australian outlaw

The Legend of Ben Hall
Written and directed by Matthew Holmes
134 minutes, rated M
3 stars

In the artistic business, no-one cares how hard you worked. So the fact that Matthew Holmes has struggled for years to get his film on Ben Hall made – raising money with a Kickstarter campaign, shooting a 40-minute version, upscaling that to fund a feature, persuading many to work on it for deferred payments, finally bringing it in for a fraction of what it should have cost – has no bearing on whether the film deserves attention.

Or does it? I could say, with equal truth, that The Legend of Ben Hall looks fantastic for the money; and that the lack of money is the reason it doesn’t look good enough. It might also be true that more money would not have fixed the problems inherent in the script – the overstatement, the exposition, the lack of depth in characterisation.

As with its subject, we’ll never know. What’s on screen is a rollicking account of the last days of a man who remains a mystery. It’s far from an art movie, but more art might have helped. The performances are uneven, the dialogue dense and difficult for the actors, and it’s too long. On the other hand, by the time we get to the lonely bush clearing where Ben Hall died in 1865, you can’t but feel like you’ve seen something big – a story with a beating Australian heart, told with a certain integrity.

Matthew Holmes committed himself to trying to tell Hall’s story without deviating from facts. He worked with historian Peter Bradley, a descendant of Ben Hall’s younger brother, on establishing those facts, but there is much that has had to be guessed. Even if it’s the most historically accurate bushranging film ever made in this country – which might be true – that would not be such a hurdle, given how romantic and fanciful most of them are. It’s certainly quixotic, 30 years after Robbery Under Arms and 40 since Mad Dog Morgan, to try to revive the genre. Is Ben Hall’s story worth the telling?

Holmes thinks so, perhaps because of the manner of his death and the way he conducted his crimes. Peter Bradley has been asking for the inquest into Hall’s killing to be reopened: was it not simply police murder that he was shot about 30 times after he had fallen?

As we meet Hall in mid-1864, his bushranging is largely behind him. Jack Martin plays him as a brooding man, resigned to his fate. He wants to get away to America, but he has unfinished business. His wife Biddy (Joanne Dobbin) has run off with the drunkard Jim Taylor (Nick Barry). His son Henry Hall (Zane Ciarma) does not now recognise his own father. Ben has never killed anyone, but for Taylor, he might make an exception. Hall’s old accomplice John Gilbert, a Canadian with a mean and unpredictable streak (Jamie Coffa), persuades him back to work – holding up mail coaches and homesteads all over the western plains. Gilbert brings in callow John Dunn (William Lee), who’s in trouble with corrupt rural police, aka ‘the traps’.

The chemistry between these three is crucial to the film’s dramatic power but it’s never quite right. Jamie Coffa’s mad act is too forced and Jack Martin plays Hall as a growler, all flashing eyes and harsh words. Much of the dialogue is unnecessary and badly in need of humour. Both script and final cut needed pruning. Superb landscapes shots with bold men a’horse are great the first few times only. Less would have been more, in every case.