David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Dur­ing the era of silent films, Aus­tralian movies about bushrangers were pro­duced in sur­pris­ingly large num­bers and were pop­u­lar with audiences — so pop­u­lar that some state au­thor­i­ties banned them for fear that thieves and mur­der­ers were be­ing turned into pop­u­lar folk heroes. Next to Ned Kelly, whose ex­ploits were fre­quently brought to the screen, the most pop­u­lar bushranger seems to have been Ben Hall (1837-65), whose ex­ploits cov­ered large ar­eas of NSW, from Bathurst to Gunda­gai, from Forbes to Goul­burn — two films about Hall were screened in 1911 alone.

Dur­ing the teens and 20s of the 20th cen­tury, the ca­reers of Kelly, Hall and the other out­laws were still fresh in the pub­lic mem­ory, but now, 100 years later, they pose more of a chal­lenge for film­mak­ers. Ba­si­cally, the prob­lem is the sto­ries are pre­dictable and fa­mil­iar; the bushranger and his gang com­mit a se­ries of rob­beries, kill some po­lice, and even­tu­ally are them­selves killed or are cap­tured and hanged. It’s not enough to film, how­ever com­pe­tently, se­quences like the ones de­scribed and leave it at that, which is pretty much what writer-di­rec­tor Matthew Holmes has done in his 2¼-hour The Leg­end of Ben Hall; to make the story in­ter­est­ing, there has to be more con­text, more char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion, more in­volve­ment in the char­ac­ters than Holmes is will­ing, or able, to provide.

Hall was cer­tainly an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. Ac­cord­ing to the his­tory books, he was born in Mait­land, NSW, of par­ents who were con­victed of petty thiev­ing of­fences and trans­ported to the colony of NSW; his fa­ther was English, his mother Ir­ish. Ben, the el­dest of three chil­dren, ap­pears to have sep­a­rated from his fam­ily when he was about 13, and worked with sheep and cattle on var­i­ous NSW prop­er­ties. In 1856, at the age of 19, he mar­ried Brid­get (Bid­die) Walsh and they had a son; Hall and his part­ner, John Maguire, leased 4000ha south of Forbes and for a while it seemed he would be­come a suc­cess­ful gra­zier.

But Brid­get left him for James Tay­lor, a stock­man, and moved away, tak­ing their son with her, and at about the same time Hall be­came in­volved with a bushranger named Frank Christie, alias Frank Gar­diner, and drifted into a life of crime.

Holmes doesn’t de­pict th­ese events on screen, though el­e­ments of them are ref­er­enced in the di­a­logue; cru­cially, he pro­vides no con­text as to the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial sit­u­a­tion in NSW in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, nor does he spend time de­vel­op­ing the char­ac­ter of Hall in a way that the au­di­ence may care about him.

As por­trayed by Jack Martin, the bushranger is an im­pos­ing fig­ure, tall craggy, blue-eyed and charm­ing when he wants to be. But his mo­ti­va­tions, ex­cept for the fact he wants his son back, re­main sketchy.

The two prin­ci­pal mem­bers of his gang, John Gil­bert and John Dunn, played by Jamie Coffa and Wil­liam Lee re­spec­tively, are sim­i­larly treated; Gil­bert is manic, edgy, a lit­tle crazy, while Dunn is a young­ster who be­comes bru­talised by the life he’s lead­ing.

The film is well pho­tographed and in­di­vid­ual scenes are ef­fi­ciently han­dled. But the nu­mer­ous gun­bat­tles in sim­i­lar-look­ing for­est lo­ca­tions, stage­coach hold-ups and carous­ing with avail­able women are overly ex­tended, especially when there’s so lit­tle nar­ra­tive or char­ac­ter to give the tragic saga a solid cen­tre. In the early days of Hol­ly­wood it was com­mon for African-Amer­i­can char­ac­ters to be por­trayed by white ac­tors in black make-up ( The Birth of a Na­tion is a glar­ing ex­am­ple); this was not con­sid­ered de­mean­ing or in­sult­ing back then.

Even as re­cently as 1967, Aus­tralian film Jour­ney Out of Dark­ness cast a white ac­tor, Ed Dev­ereaux, as an Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter. Th­ese thoughts oc­curred to me while watch­ing the French com­edy Up for Love, which is about a re­la­tion­ship be­tween a “nor­mal” woman and a charm­ing, suc­cess­ful man who just hap­pens to be very short (1.37m). The char­ac­ter is played by ac­tor Jean Du­jardin, who is, I would guess, of av­er­age height, but cin­e­matic trick­ery makes him seen con­sid­er­ably shorter than his co-star, Vir­ginie Efira.

On one level the film is a com­edy about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Diane (Efira) is a suc­cess­ful The Leg­end of Ben Hall (M) Limited na­tional re­lease Up for Love (Un homme a la hau­teur) (M) Limited na­tional re­lease Dancer (M) Limited re­lease The Leg­end of Ben Hall lawyer with a prac­tice in Nice; her mar­riage to Bruno (Cedric Kahn) has re­cently ended, which is a bit awk­ward be­cause he’s her pro­fes­sional part­ner in the law firm they own.

The film be­gins when she loses her mo­bile phone and is con­tacted by Alexan­dre (Du­jardin), who has found it and who calls her on her lan­d­line. He sounds charm­ing and flirts with her so she agrees to meet him — and only then does she dis­cover that he’s, well, small. Nev­er­the­less, after some ini­tial mis­giv­ings, she over­comes her prej­u­dices and be­gins to date him, de­spite the at­ti­tudes of her snob­bish mother and of Bruno.

What’s not to like about this? Du­jardin, best known for The Artist and a very pop­u­lar comic ac­tor in France, ex­udes sex ap­peal, while Efira is stylish and so­phis­ti­cated; the spe­cial ef­fects that

Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, Wil­liam Lee in

Ukrainian dancer Sergei Pol­unin in a scene from the Steven Can­tor doc­u­men­tary Dancer

The bushranger sur­veysveys his do­main in n The Leg­end of Ben Hall

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