Written, produced and directed by Matthew Holmes (Twin Rivers), The Legend of Ben Hall is a brutally boring historical drama about 19th century Australian bushranger Ben Hall. Hall is a genuinely fascinating folkloric figure and in the hands of a director like Andrew Dominik, John Hillcoat or even Jane Campion his life story would no doubt make for great, or at the very least decent, cinema. Holmes has clearly put a great deal of effort into ensuring that his dramatization of the legendary bushranger’s life and notoriously controversial death is as historically accurate as humanly possible, but he has failed to turn it into anything approaching decent cinema.
Opening in August 1864 with its titular character (played by newcomer Jack Martin) already several years into his criminal career, The Legend of Ben Hall recounts the final months of Hall’s life before his death at the hands of N.S.W police in May 1865. The fact that the audience is shown nothing of Hall’s earlier life or his transition from law-abiding cattle farmer and family man to gang affiliated highway robber means that we are never really given much opportunity to understand or sympathise with the character’s choices. We do get hints (via clumsy expository dialogue and repetitive dream sequence shots) that it had something to do with Hall’s wife Biddy (Joanne Dobbin) leaving him for another man, but even these fail to place the character’s criminality in any kind of meaningful context.
Hall is wanted in connection with several dozen crimes and on the run from the traps (the police) when we first meet him. Most of his fellow gang members have already escaped across the border into Victoria but Hall refuses to follow. Instead he travels to the home Biddy shares with her new husband to reclaim custody of their young son. The script works hard to make Ben’s actions appear justified as he threatens a weeping woman while essentially abducting her small child only to immediately dump said child on friends living near Forbes so he can return to holding up mail coaches, but the optics aren’t great.
After reconnecting with petulant, profoundly irritating former companion ‘Happy Jack’ Gilbert (Jamie Coffa) and recruiting baby-faced murderer John Dunn (William Lee) to join his new gang, Hall embarks upon a series of audacious raids and robberies in order to secure the funds he will need to escape to the United States. Most of the film’s 134 runtime is composed of pretty but static landscape shots of the trio trekking around central New South Wales (seemingly always at sunset), interspersed with over-long, awkwardly choreographed shootouts with police and the occasional, painfully dull attempt at romance. During the third act Hall and his companions discover that they have been declared outlaws by Parliament (meaning ordinary citizens are legally allowed to arrest and kill them), but even this fails to add any real sense of urgency to the plot.
The Legend of Ben Hall deserves praise for its sumptuous period set and costume design, but both are in service to a fatally flawed script. Many of the film’s scenes serve no real narrative purpose and most are poorly structured, resulting in a plodding, directionless overall story. Holmes’ decision to cast inexperienced actors in lead roles based on their resemblance to the historical figures they portray was a mistake and none of the core cast gives a good performance (Coffa is especially terrible). Worst of all is the clichéd, graceless, consistently dreadful dialogue.