Van Diemen's Land
Details: (MA15+), 104 mins, Australia, English
Synopsis: 1822. Macquarie Harbour, a remote prison camp guarded by miles of impenetrable wilderness, was feared by convicts banished there as a fate worse than death. Sentenced to slave labour, a work party of eight Irish, English and Scottish thieves attempt the impossible in an infamous bid for freedom. Totally unprepared for the arduous journey ahead, their escape into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness becomes a futile battle between man and nature. As supplies dwindle and tensions amongst the group escalate, they soon contemplate the unthinkable.
You are who you eat.
Debut feature writer/director Jonathan Auf Der Heide and writer/star Oscar Redding have crafted a genuinely creepy and supremely cinematic tale of survival and moral decay with their horrific history-lesson, Van Diemen’s Land. Crucial critical support and academic dissection of the cannibal-convict Alexander Pearce’s real-life story should result in the film becoming a must-see arthouse hit, though dinner-&-movie ticket promotions are unlikely.
Tasmanian-native Auf Der Heide has a fascination for the island state’s brutal colonial past; he has previously explored it in his award-winning 2008 short Hells Gate. In Redding, he’s found a kindred spirit – the actor delved into Pearce’s mental and physical disintegration in a one-man stage play several years ago. Together, they have created one of the most vivid portrayals of the early-settler experience ever put to film in Australia.
Sent to the most unforgiving of the Empire’s penal colonies, Pearce was part of an 8-man convict-crew that felled tall trees for shipment back to the mainland. The men were a mix of British and Irish criminals (some early dialogue is in traditional gaelic), who were metaphorically chain-ganged within the harsh terrain and isolation of Van Diemen’s Land, and nationalistic tension simmers for much of the film. The cunning British prisoner Greenhill (Arthur Angel) masterminds an escape plan and Pearce and his mate Dalton (a charismatic Mark Leonard Winter) agree to join him for what they believe will be a short walk through some Australian wilderness, to a settlement where they will assume the lives of free men.
As starvation sets in, it is Greenhill who suggests a sacrificial killing so that all may survive, and his decision dooms the desperate group. Having forsaken the last humane and decent value they possess, and driven to the brink of insanity by the realities of their action, they are consumed by paranoia, deception and illusory madness.
As Pearce, Oscar Redding undergoes a subtle and compelling transformation. A background player in the group’s dynamic, Pearce is initially bewildered by the developments amongst the men, but soon grows in stature as his own survival needs and shredded morality take over. Redding captures the man’s numbing descent into madness with a stillness that is terrifying – when Pearce does act decisively, it is both an eruption of focussed violence (his despatching of one character on a lonely riverbank is chilling) and a display of pure instinct.
Audiences who venture to the film will almost certainly have some knowledge of the historical facts, so the outcome won’t ever be in doubt. The film’s momentum rests on the sociological and psychological interaction between the group members. Unfortunately, the intensity of this interaction wavers, and the narrative gets bogged down on occasion, relying heavily on voice-over (Pearce’s surprisingly-profound existential mutterings) or atmospheric music and location.
That aside, Jonathan Auf Der Heide proves to be a strong, assertive filmmaker, who some overseas festival critics have likened to Terrence Mallick for his sparse, naturalistic use of dialogue and majestic eye for landscape. In collaboration with cinematographer Ellery Ryan, the Tasmanian landscape (and its stand-in Victorian equivalent) is a sight to behold in the 2:35 ratio. As the backdrop for acts of pure barbarism, it is a grey, horribly-beautiful vision of Hell.
And the actual cannibalism? The killings are more graphic than the actual meal-times. Over the course of the film, there are only a few references where we are made acutely aware of the life these men were living (a bloody ‘meat-bag’ carries leftovers; what is that boiling in the billy?). It is not until Pearce takes the final, fateful decision that ensures his own survival do we see exactly what this human being has become. It’s shocking and compelling and really gross.
The film shares some elements with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999), a turn-of-the-century Civil War story about a battalion of mountain-region soldiers who turn on each when food is scarce. Starring Guy Pearce and a scenery-chewing Robert Carlisle, it was a dark comedy that drew parallels between the madness of war and man-on-man consumption.
Van Diemen’s Land chooses to not provide a comedy-cushion as a comfort zone for its audience. Jonathan Auf Der Heide and Oscar Redding aren’t scared to explore the legend of Alexander Pearce as it would have happened, keenly examining the need for one man to accept his mortality and morality to survive. More power to talented, serious Australian filmmakers like them.
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