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.