Image for FILM: Van Diemen’s LandJonathan Auf Der Heide’s debut feature film is a haunting retelling of one of the darkest chapters of Australian history. A distant, bleak nightmare becomes animated with such terrifyingly bare realism you will taste the darkest corners of the human condition and smell the fringes of human morality long after you try to forget about this film.

FILM: Van Diemen’s Land

Written by Marcus Campbell on October 7, 2009

Van Diemen’s Land
Directed by Jonathan Auf Der Heide
Starring: Oscar Redding, Arthur Angel, Paul Ashcroft, Mark Leonard Winter

Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s debut feature film is a haunting retelling of one of the darkest chapters of Australian history. A distant, bleak nightmare becomes animated with such terrifyingly bare realism you will taste the darkest corners of the human condition and smell the fringes of human morality long after you try to forget about this film. While recently many critics such as The Age’s Michael Coulter have argued that Australian cinema needs to lighten up, Van Diemen’s Land will only provide them with more fuel for their funeral pyre as this is probably the darkest, most unremorsefully wretched Australian film you will see all year.

The year is 1822 and convict Alexander Pearce and seven other prisoners escape into the Tasmanian wilderness from their labouring detail in Macquarie Harbour. The group of assorted Anglo-Saxon heritage who speak different languages and are convicted of different minor crimes intend to hike to the coast and catch a boat ride back to civilisation. None of their backgrounds is made important however, as the current journey and their gruesome outcome makes it somewhat irrelevant. Food enviably runs short and their initial camaraderie soon turns to distrust and disgust as the hunger takes hold and cannibalism becomes the only viable option.

While the film’s preference for darker narrative focuses may put off even the most weathered film veterans, there is a small respite through the existential questions that are asked through the character of Pearce. His short poetic accounts are made in chilling Gaelic with subtitles over panning shots of rolling hills and the natural environment. Simple entries such “Four Godless men walk to the Devil” voice the acceptance of guilt that is not being revealed by his unflinching character. The Pearce of this retelling is the everyman whose religious morality has become lost in the cruel, unforgiving nature around him. His words add to the depressive undercurrent, the ominous religious poetry suggesting a futility in humanity’s struggle to look for purpose in life beyond the basic need for survival.

The film is beautifully shot with colours drained and light restricted to give the natural environment a surreal, dreamy appearance throughout. Casting is flawless, made up of mostly TV actors including the restrained performance of Oscar Redding who takes the lead role as well as co-writing for the first time. The music is a suitably gloomy-but-epic violin-driven affair that holds the tension well and provides a great background for Pearce’s Gallic interludes. What will stand out is that it is not your typical historic film. There is no real structure, no establishment or introduction, no real events besides the journey along with its periodic murders and there is no real conclusion. This as well as the lack of background or character development will annoy some people.

While the story of Pearce and his group has been retold many times through several books and one standout film The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce released just last year, Van Diemen’s Land should provide closure for anyone really interested in experiencing the shocking history. The horror of its realism sinks so far under your skin that it wills you to understand the insanity these men felt when faced with endless wilderness and slow claustrophobia. This is simply the best and worst of Australian filmmaking. At once a beautiful, poetic achievement for the industry but also a gothic glimpse of a harsh colonial heritage that will leave you miserable even after the consoling renunciations your mind will make.

You will love this if: The politics of eight escaped convicts lost in the Tasmanian wilderness with two days food and one axe are of great interest to you.

You will hate this if: You prefer a redeeming, hopeful element within your cinema experience.

Van Diemen’s Land is now screening in a (very) limited release across Australia.

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