Van Diemen's Land

Starring Oscar Redding, Arthur Angel, Paul Ashcroft and Mark Leonard Winter. Directed by Jonathan Auf Der Heide.
Rated M15+ (strong violence and coarse language). 104 mins.

Last year’s low-budget Australian shocker Dying Breed drew on the story of Irish convict Alexander Pearce, who was hanged in Hobart Town in 1824 after confessing to cannibalism, a taste acquired by living off the flesh of fellow absconders when trying to flee the penal system upon which our island state Tasmania was founded.

Van Diemen’s Land, directed and co-written by young film-maker Jonathan Auf Der Heide, addresses Pearce’s story in a totally different fashion — almost elegiacally, which to say the least is unusual for a tale of murder and cannibalism.

The film wastes little time on setting up the story. It opens at the penal settlement Macquarie Harbour in 1822 when eight convicts make a break for freedom. Thwarted in their plan to steal a boat, they are forced to go overland, but are ill-prepared for the rigours of the wilderness. They run out of food in a matter of days, and when hunger gets the better of them they kill the weakest member of the party and eat his flesh. This is repeated again and again until only Pearce is left.

There is not much more to it. The characters don’t say much, we don’t get to know any of them very well and they remain at arm’s length. They are neither sympathetic nor repellent. The style of film-making is somewhat remote, too — far too many long, portentous silences for my liking, and the repeated use of lingering shots of the admittedly photogenic wilderness becomes a bit of a cliché.

Gaelic-speaking Pearce (played by co-writer Oscar Redding) is presented as a poetic sort of chap, even when dispatching colleagues with an axe, and his ruminations are heard on the soundtrack as a sort of occasional narration. “I've looked up at God looking down," he says at one point. "He dances with an axe in his hand." Or “Let God have His heaven. I am blood." Or “A man with no blood on his hands is no man.” Even more curious, as a victim lies at his feet in his death throes, twitching and shuddering: “How can it be so beautiful?”

This lugubrious film’s slow pace is accentuated by its mournful Celtic music soundtrack, and after a while one rainforest, mountain range or river starts to look like another as the dwindling band treks through and over them.

The sensitive viewer should be warned that the murders are quite brutal and the victims take some time to die. The language is also pretty rough, raising the interesting question of whether convicts of the 1820s would have cursed in much the same vernacular as the 2000s. More credible, though, is the way the Irish convicts speak a mixture of English and (with subtitles) Gaelic. It is easy to accept that this is the way Pearce & Co. would have conversed.

Madman Out September 24

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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