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The Legend of Ben Hall – film review

December 9, 2016


Australian cinema gets back on the horse.

Reviewed on Wednesday 30th November 2016


Written & Directed by Matthew Holmes. Starring: Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, William Lee, Joanne Dobbin and Lauren Grimson. Running time: 139 mins.

An historical action crime drama detailing the final months in the life of Australia’s most notorious and misrepresented bushranger, Ben Hall.

Australian cinema has been depicting our nation’s wild colonial roots from the very beginning. In fact, Australia can proudly claim to have produced the world’s very first full-length narrative feature – The Story of the Kelly Gang – back in 1906; a film which depicted our most (arguably) famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. And period dramas have always been with us; with a popular resurgence occuring in the 1970s with internationally recognized pictures such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Caddie and Newsfront. This fascination with depicting the past continued on into the 80s with Gallipoli and The Man from Snowy River but pretty much ended with the release of the Sam Neil-starring Robbery Under Arms in 1985; as the next wave of Aussie filmmakers were more interested in telling contemporary stories; particulary urban melodramas; many of which where dire and depressing to say the least. Sadly, this off-putting tone of nihilism which pervaded Australian films into the 90s turned off local auds to the extent where nowadays (more often than not) – Aussie films tend to play to empty theatres; while the prohibitive cost involved in recreating period settings (with the manufacture of authentic-looking props and costumes etc) dictates that films as elaborate as The Legend of Ben Hall are few and far between (the only recent examples being the Heath Ledger-starring Ned Kelly in 2003 and the universally acclaimed The Proposition in 2005).

Several years in development, this passion project from writer-director Matthew Holmes (Twin Rivers, The Artifice) began as a proposed 25 minute short after his (still-in-developement) creature feature Territorial was unable to secure funding. As     a result of a hugely successful kickstarter campaign (which garnered more funds than were actually needed), the planned short was then expanded to 45 minutes. As interest in the project spread during production, still more funding was secured from private backers; which allowed for more shooting and an increase in the running time to feature length. Holmes’ intent with The Legend of Ben Hall has always been to present a more balanced and sympathetic portrait of the man than was depicted historically in the press of the day. For, despite the fact he was responsible for over 600 hold-ups in his short career; Hall was always respectful of those he robbed. This, along with the fact that he never actually killed anyone, is an aspect which makes his unlawful demise at the hands of reward-seeking vigilantes all the more affecting.

Holmes’ background in the precise art and science of visual effects lends the film a well-machined look. This is not to say the film is a visual effects extravaganza – it’s not. But Holmes’ (almost microscopic) eye for detail in all departments is clearly evident in every frame. Here is a filmmaker who knows precisely what he’s doing; where to place the camera, where to edit, how to stage a scene for maximum impact – it’s all here. And his skills are truly impressive in this respect. And for a relatively low budget feature sporting a period setting, production values are uncharacteristically high (with every cent clearly up there on the screen). Indeed, the film has been enthusiatically embraced by historians as the most authentic representation of this particular period ever put on screen.

Tonally, at least, Ben Hall leans more towards the gritty realism of The Proposition (sans the savage bleakness and brutality) – than it does the comic book levity of Robbery Under Arms. This is not to say the film is without its lighter moments (particularly in scenes involving Jamie Coffa’s character), but overall, the tone does echo the seriousness of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (a film which Ben Hall does indeed give a nod to; with regard to the use of dream-like familial visions to help flesh out   the titular character).

The large supporting cast are uniformly excellent; with the stand-out being William Lee; here delivering a perfectly nuanced performance as Hall’s youngest and most impressionable gang member, John Dunn. Dunn is perhaps the character who undergoes the most dramatic change through the course of the film and Lee does     an outstanding job; definitely a name to watch for in the coming years. Also very good are Jordan Fraser-Trumble (in a role remarkably similar to that of Harvey Keitel in Thelma & Louise) – as the sympathetic Sub-Inspector Davidson; a man determined to capture Hall alive and Lauren Grimson as Hall’s love interest Christina McKinnon (another new face I predict big things for in the future). Plucked straight from acting school, Jack Martin, as the titular hero, all brooding stoicism – is undoubtedly an imposing presence on-screen (although he does tend to be upstaged at times by Jaimi Coffa – as Hall’s clearly psychopathic offsider John Gilbert). And while the dialogue scenes between Ben and his estranged wife Biddi (regarding custody of their young son) can be a little too wordy and on-point to be convincing (particularly during the first half) – the bushranging scenes involving Ben and his gang more than make up for this.

The film features numerous action set-pieces and Holmes displays a keen sense     of geography during the various stage coach robberies and shoot-outs with police; skillfully immersing us within the action; while the richly-textured sound design and Caitlin Spiller’s unobtrusive and perfectly-timed editing (there isn’t a single superfluous shot in this film) – also contribute greatly to the overall impact and excitement of these scenes. The epic grandeur of the Australian outback (with country Victoria standing in for New South Wales locales, circa 1860s) are beautifully captured by DP Peter Szilveszter; demanding this movie be seen on the biggest screen possible. While Ronnie Minder’s sweeping score perfectly augments the emotion, suspense and tragedy inherent in the tale.

Minor quibbles aside, The Legend of Ben Hall is a hugely engaging and culturally important film and a movie all Australians should enthusiastically embrace and be justifiably proud of.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, November 30th 2016.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. gregory moss permalink

    And fantastic news for Los Angeles readers … The Legend of Ben Hall will be screening for one week only at the Laemmie Theatre in Encino – opening Friday the 16th of December. Be sure and check it out!


  2. gregory moss permalink

    For more information on these exclusive Encino screenings …


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