Film review – Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

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Alexander Pearce was an Irish convict who escaped from a penal settlement in Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Van Diemen’s Land is the latest film to depict his story and show the physical and psychological conditions that lead to what Pearce is most notorious for: eating his fellow escapees. Director Jonathan auf der Heide previously explored Pearce’s story in his short film Hell’s Gates and many of the same actors have returned for Van Diemen’s Land, including co-writer Oscar Redding who plays Pearce in both films. However, Pearce is not the primary focus of the film as it is about the experiences of all eight convicts who escaped together but then had to form alliances against each other when the hunger set in and difficult choices had to be made.

Despite its incredibly grim subject matter Van Diemen’s Land is not a horror film nor is it a cannibalistic Big Brother. Clearly inspired by the films of Terrence Malick and Werner Hertog, auf der Heide has created a slow burning mood-piece that gives as much importance to the hostile Tasmanian landscape as it does to the characters. Ellery Ryan’s cinematography frequently places the characters in wide shots as tiny figures amid the oppressive and increasingly hostile environment while the evocative soundtrack by Jethro Woodward often sounds like a more menacing version of the Neil Young score for Dead Man.

The ensemble cast of convicts are terrific and watching the dynamics of how they relate to each other and start to take sides is compelling and tense. Unfortunately once the characters start to kill and eat each other, the film loses some of its edge due mainly to the fact that the most interesting characters are the first to exit the narrative. This loss of momentum in the second half of the film is a shame but nevertheless Van Diemen’s Land possesses an impressive hypnotic power.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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4 Responses to Film review – Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

  1. Evil Steve says:

    Well *finally* got to see this, and it has not progessed much, if at all, from the flawed short (btw the short is Hell’s Gates not Hell’s Gate, which was/is the name of my FilmVic funded project developed from 1998-2007). Characters and character relations are under-developed to the point of confusion – dialogue feels dramaturged, with pointless male invective and posturing, and does not work hard enough to carry the narrative. Structure is loose or even non-existant, with the cannibalisation coming way to late in the film, forcing the subsequent killings into a montage with little emotional impact and even less narrative cause and effect. Making Pearce so inactive as to be invisible for most of the movie is, well, pointless. At the end of the day, this film feels like what it is: a low budget, under-developed student feature. I find it strange it’s getting 3-4 stars. Myself, I’d give it 2 stars. Shame this film may have killed Hell’s Gate – even in it’s current form (one draft away from completion) it would have been so much better and given this great story the dramatic and cinematic impact it deserves.

  2. Hi Evil Steve and thanks for dropping by.

    Firstly, thanks for pointing out that error and sorry that by making that error I confused auf der Heide’s short film (which I haven’t seen) with the project you are developing. I’ve now gone back and corrected my review.

    In many ways I agree with you about the script for Van Diemen’s Land as I think it is structurally flawed. However, stylistically I was really impressed with this film and that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

    You aren’t the only one who hasn’t liked it though and I know that Glenn Dunks at Stale Popcorn was really unimpressed with it in his review.

    I don’t think that Van Diemen’s Land will be regarded as the definite Alexander Pearce film and given the general interest in Pearce’s story at the moment then I think there is still room for more films to be made. So hopefully your film will be helped and not hindered. I know I’d like to see it!

    Cheers
    Thomas

  3. It’s not easy finding other reviewers who liked this as much as I did Thomas. I found those final wordless scenes with the last two convicts absolutely riveting – very well handled considering the obvious instinct would have been to use dialogue. For me that may have had the opposite effect and detracted from the inexorable power of the moment in a way.

    I totally understand how a lot of people might find this hard going though; I did too for a little while but then it just pulled me under – just before the first murder I think.

  4. Evil Steve says:

    @Thomas

    Hey Thomas, thanks for your reply – will be interesting to discuss the style with you sometime :)

    @ David

    I tend to agree, the final wordless scenes are probably the strongest part of the movie (and given the narrative context, a natural choice – I’ve done the same myself), however I arrived there with no attachment to either character, so whilst these scenes were interesting in themselves, they weren’t informed by the preceding narrative which robbed them, in my view, of their true potential. Anyhow, horses for courses as they say.

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