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Australia 2009
Directed by
Jonathan Auf Der Heide
102 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Van Diemen's Land

Synopsis:  Alexander Pearce (Oscar Redding) was an Irish labourer transported to Van Diemen's Land for petty theft. He escaped in 1822 with seven fellow convicts none of whom were ever seen again.

I know nothing of Jonathan Auf Der Heide other than that he is a sometime television actor, but I do know he has made a remarkable film. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Van Diemen's Land is an and-then-there-was-one story about cannibalism. It’s not a horror movie but it’s definitely not a comedy.  It’s the kind of film Werner Herzog would make – a Conradian journey to the heart of darkness. It must be a Germanic thing (who can forget Armin Meiwes, the Frankfurt cannibal who made headlines in 2006?).

Auf Der Heide’s film is a reworking of his 2008 short film Hell’s Gate (2008) which also starred his co-writer on this feature length version, Oscar Redding (Alexander Pearce’s story was also related in a telemovie I have not seen that was shown on the ABC earlier this year). It is a film which relies mainly on mood, created through Ellery Ryan's leached-out digital cinematography, Jethro Woodward’s edgy score and convincing performances from a cast of little known actors. The dialogue is limited but it is tellingly reinforced by an intermittent voice-over in (sub-titled) Gaelic from Pearce that gives the events their spiritually-heightened interpretation.

Although I am sure there are those who would want a more graphic or dramatic account of these events, Auf Der Heide has judged well not to go in this direction although commercially this is likely to cost him. To do this would have been easy but what is truly remarkable about Van Diemen's Land is its quietly trenchant focus on the moral hell of the escaped convicts. These were men who probably all were transported for misdemeanours. They had been deprived of hearth and home by a brutal regime and had made a desperate, righteous attempt to be free. For what? To find themselves driven to the depths of inhumanity. Auf Der Heide’s achievement is to bring that bitter irony home to audiences without indulging in gruesome sensationalism or parody-susceptible histrionics. We are bluntly faced by the ineluctable consequences of the struggle to survive and the question we ask ourselves is what would we do in that situation?

Van Diemen's Land is a rarity in the Australian film landscape, more European in tone than we are familiar with although certainly sharing in the dark, dislocated sensibility that so often informs our best films. My only reservation is that I do not believe that anyone in 1822 used the word “asshole” as does one of the characters here.




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