‘The Legend of Ben Hall’: Film Review

The Legend of Ben Hall Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Odin's Eye Entertainment
Shapeless and plodding.

A Western set in New South Wales follows the final exploits of one of the most wanted men in 1860s Australia.

Whatever extraordinary qualities made the outlaw Ben Hall a legend, they’re nowhere to be found in Matthew Holmes’ overlong feature. The writer-director’s attention to period detail and the historical record is for naught in his biographical drama of one of Australia’s most notorious “bushrangers” — the 19th-century highwaymen who plundered their way across the British colony.

The Legend of Ben Hall follows the daring thief’s last months, during the 1860s gold-rush era in New South Wales. With a huge price on his head, Hall (Jack Martin, blankly dogged and stoic) sets out to raise — i.e., steal — enough money to leave the country and start over in the United States. Targeting cash-rich mail coaches and highway travelers, he gets busy with a former associate, the trigger-happy Jack Gilbert (a distractingly over-the-top turn by Jamie Coffa), and a green but eager 18-year-old, John Dunn (William Lee).

What unfolds is a monotonous succession of shoot-outs against the relentless swell of the score, climaxing in a slo-mo sequence of literal overkill. Holmes fashions scenes involving the police inspectors and trackers on Hall’s trail, as well as treacherous friends, devoted lovers and variously enrapt and horrified townspeople. But none of these interactions, nor the profusion of tight close-ups of Martin, bring Hall into focus as a full-blooded character.

The bushranger’s determination to reconnect with his young son (Zane Ciarma), who’s being raised by his ex-wife (Joanne Dobbin) and the drunkard (Nick Barry) she’s taken up with, becomes his sole distinguishing characteristic, but even this deeply personal motivating factor is just another piece in the story’s vague, protracted trajectory. Holmes’ unfocused screenplay makes clear that his subject was an honorable thief (Hall never took a life), but the writer-director never makes any of it matter.

Fidelity to the historical facts and chronology are fine, but not at the expense of dramatic compression and tension. Other than the sense of injustice in the movie’s final moments, there’s no purpose to this Legend, no defining concept and especially no driving energy.

Holmes, who has a background in stop-motion animation, uses practical as well as digital effects, and there’s a lived-in quality to the movie’s sets and locations. But against its frontier landscape, this very long haul of a drama abandons the forest for the trees.

Production companies: Odin’s Eye Entertainment, Two Tone Pictures, RLC Motion Picture Entertainment, Running Panda Films
Cast: Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, William Lee, Joanne Dobbin, Arthur Angel, Adam Willson, Erica Field, Zane Ciarma, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Lauren Grimson, PiaGrace Moon, Lauren Gregory, Gregory Quinn, Angus Pilakui, John Orcsik, Andy McPhee, Callan McAuliffe, Nick Barry
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Holmes
Producers: Russell Cunningham, Jessica Pearce, Matthew Holmes, Michael Favelle
Executive producers: Greg McLean, Ross Angelo, Sherard Kingston, Roger Savage, Veronica Sive, Silvio Salom, William Lee, Damelys Marin, Adam La Rosa
Director of photography: Peter Szilveszter
Production designer: Das Patterson
Costume designer: Michael Chisholm
Editor: Caitlin Spiller
Composer: Ronnie Minder
Casting: Marnie Hill

Not rated, 140 minutes