Australians love a bushranger it seems. Idealised and immortalised by history, their crimes and behaviour are often blurred and softened by the storytellers. The idealised picture of young, free men roaming the land, seeking land and fortune, is romantic and inspires the free spirit or rebellion in all of us. But at what cost?
The latest movie to be released in the bushranger genre is The Legend of Ben Hall, written and directed by Matthew Holmes. Based on a true story and, determined to be faithful to historic fact, Holmes' focus has resulted in a film that will satisfy the serious historian, and also movie-lovers. It covers the last 9 months of Ben Hall's life.
Filmed and produced in Victorian bushland, Holmes and Cinematographer Peter Szilveszter have used the Australian bush to capture the essence and atmosphere of mid-1800's Australia. Sweeping landscapes and vast, endless Eucalypt forests portray the isolated and harsh, humble beginnings of Australia's early settlers. This is juxtaposed with intimate close-ups of the actors' intense emotions. The costuming is detailed and authentic; a bloody fight scene is raw and confronting.
This epic saga begins with a broody and tired Ben Hall (Jack Martin) in hiding deep in the Australian bush. The pain and hopelessness of his chosen path is deeply etched in his face. The re-appearance of an old friend, John Gilbert (Jamie Coffa), the more flamboyant risk-taker of the two, soon sees them back 'in the game'. They draft a third, inexperienced 'new recruit', John Dunn (William Lee), who, because of a small misdemeanour, is also fleeing the police. The three quickly resume the habit of daring raids of robbery on poor land-holders and innocent travellers. The police have failed to catch them, and the more they roam and rob, the more humiliated the law-enforcement constabulary become. Dunn's inexperience proves to be their undoing as, left in charge and on watch during a simple robbery, he commits murder by shooting the local constable, a respected father of eight.
Up until now their 'innocent' thefts seem a trifle and harmless, but killing a policeman makes them the most wanted men in Australia. Authorities quickly move to declare them outlaws, the new law allowing anyone to arrest or shoot them, with no recourse.
With a huge bounty on their heads, this becomes a film about characters. The gang is both loved and hated; supported by an underground network of friends, and reviled by those whose lives have been impacted and destroyed by their robberies. The community is divided - do they deserve a second chance, or do they deserve to be hanged? The viewer is challenged by the paradox of the gang raiding and stealing other people's property so they can turn their life around.
Holmes hasn't forgotten the role of the women of the time. We meet Hall's estranged wife and son, who are scared of him. Then there are the women who love the notoriety of the gang, who love them and hide them from authorities. The part they play in this story of survival and rebellion is exceptional and highly emotional.
The weight of infamy lay heavy on Ben Hall's head. He didn't seek notoriety and glory. He didn't kill anyone. He wanted to start a new life. On the other hand, John Gilbert, the irascible and erratic No. 2 man wanted to be famous, wanted everyone to know who he was. The two men, driven by different layers of their character, proved a formidable team, and represent a slash of the Australian psyche.
For this reviewer, the movie is a little slow to get going and, at around 135 minutes in length, it had a long way to go. But persevere and your patience is rewarded with plenty of action and drama. Ned Kelly was just a boy of 11 when Ben Hall and his gang roamed the midlands of New South Wales. Hall was the more prolific outlaw and his legacy of crime surpasses Kelly's. Yet Kelly has been our 'Australian hero' bushranger for much of our history. 'The Legend of Ben Hall'' movie will change all that. Matthew Holmes has allowed Hall's story to gallop over the hill of obscurity into our hearts.
In selected cinemas December 1st, 2016: click here to find participating cinemas.