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