Director Matthew Holmes’ The Legend of Ben Hall is a bit long and seems very clean for a bushranger tale but succeeds when the story picks up pace.
Movies about Aussie bushrangers (were there any other kind?) are a rare and slightly dubious lot (two versions of Ned Kelly, a parody or two, the Ozploitation classic Mad Dog Morgan), and there’s no doubt that writer, director and co-producer Matthew Holmes’ labour-of-love The Legend of Ben Hall is sometimes stilted and awkward too, and somehow all a bit clean.
But there’s something here that makes it tick anyway, despite the needless 134 minute running time, and the second half, as we pick up speed and the law closes in on our ‘hero’, offers some real, true-blue kick.
Ben Hall (Jack Martin, who looks surprisingly like the real bloke) is introduced in a shootout back in 1864 with some coppers and barely making it out alive, and then he’s driven to locate his former wife Biddy (Joanne Dobbin) and try and connect, however roughly, with his young and estranged son Henry (Zane Ciarma).
He’s painted, rather steeply, as a good man who was driven to take up the bushranger life by circumstance, and he’s also haunted by how cruel he was to Biddy (he evidently beat her, but the script barely mentions it), and eventually he re-teams with his cocky old pal John ‘Happy Jack’ Gilbert (Jamie Coffa) and takes on a new recruit, the gormless John Dunn (William Lee).
Cue Butch Cassidy-like montages of hold-ups, robberies, gun-slinging, lots of dashing about on horses and some intriguing detail, including a sequence where the lads make their own bullets with tools and a campfire.
However, our Ben’s a non-violent sort of chap, and while he’s never killed anyone with these bullets, his accomplices in, um, bushrangering aren’t quite as principled and calm, and soon the police are closing in, particularly as Ben and the boys have a tendency to brazenly turn up at pubs and dances, despite the $2500 bounty on his head.
He’s also shown to be very close with an old gal-pal named Christina, who’s nicely played by Lauren Grimson, even if she looks like she’s stepped out of a beauty salon and (gasp!) brushes her teeth often.
The first of a projected trilogy of bushranger biopics planned by Holmes, this is far too long (half an hour could have easily been trimmed) and the actors aren’t always up to it, and yet it’s still worth persevering with, right down to the you-saw-it-coming, sub-Bonnie And Clyde ending. Strewth!
Rated M. The Legend of Ben Hall is in selected cinemas now.