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Van Diemen’s Land film review (MIFF ’09)

Van Diemen's Land

Orange lightPeriod films about desperate omnivorous men chowing down on each other’s flesh have felt rather underwhelming ever since Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle gate-crashed the genre in Ravenous (1999), Antonia Bird’s spectacularly shuddersome tale of U.S. soldiers in the American-Mexican war who devour the bodies and possess the strength of their slain-and-simmered, beaten-and-boiled comrades. Van Diemen’s land, written and directed by Jonathan Auf Der Heide, is about as straight-laced and unprepossessing as a cannibal film can be, opting for brooding steady-as-she-goes realism ahead of everything else: gore, tension, action, conflict. Auf Der Heide’s washed out colour scheme gives the film a listless, anaemic veneer, as if it’s starved of oxygen and running out of breath, slowing dying before our eyes. Despite the provocative themes Van Diemen’s Land is a lethargic experience, erring towards the spiritless.

Auf Der Heide realistically retells the story of Alexander Pearce (aka The Pieman), an Irish convict who escaped penal settlement with seven men in 1822. Fiendishly hungry and with nary a 7/11 in sight, the men went on to slaughter and sink their teeth into each other, Pearce emerging as the last man standing. When he was recaptured the Pieman confessed his ungodly crimes but the police didn’t believe him until he escaped once more and was again recaptured, this time – as legend has it, though the film concludes well before this – his pockets stuffed with the remains of a fellow escapee. In other words Pearce’s sickly story is potentially rip-snorting material for a film. But Auf Der Heide resists any temptation to juice up the material, possibly because his budget wouldn’t allow it. Van Diemen’s Land is the stoic sister to Dying Breed, Jody Dwyer’s grisly purebred horror/slasher riff on the Pieman folklore released late last year.

Van Diemen’s Land is well shot, acted and directed but the narrative is slow and sleepy and there isn’t nearly enough tension between the characters. The question of which man will be next to sizzle on the campfire, if it were handled with more gusto, could have been a crucial compensation for the lack of plot and action but instead the deaths seem incidental, characters simply carcasses waiting to be cooked. There is very little violence, with the cameras almost always cutting away before the strike, so horror aficionados thirsty for carnage are advised to sink their fangs into something else. The film’s atmosphere could have benefited from more gore; if you’re going to highlight the brutality of cannibalism, why not go the whole hog? Or is that the whole human?

The cast are universally strong but the laggard storyline and slow tempo grind after a while and Van Diemen’s Land actually becomes less interesting as more characters vanish from the menu. It was shot and edited – and presumably cast too – in less than 12 months, which is an impressive achievement but unsurprising given the material feels under-worked. Still, the film’s sense of realism is airtight: it feels like you’ve been there hanging around the camp fire, exchanging crooked glances with these cursed souls.

Van Diemen’s Land is playing at Melbourne International Film Festival and will be released theatrically September 24.

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  • 1
    Posted August 3, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I’m really interested in this – it sounds like Auf Der Heide has taken a pretty unexpected approach. Plus, cannibalism. Sold.

  • 2
    Clarke
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Wait for Grindhouse Eli Roth Horror Version coming soon!!!

  • 3
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    CT – I see you’re sold on cannibalism despite my luke warm review; just as I am sold on nazi zombies (Dead Snow) despite your scatching review!

  • 4
    Cody Byrne
    Posted August 4, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    This movie was a spine tickler. You’re right about the tension, there is hardly any between the men. However, how much would there have been? Men taken to the other side of the earth were, for all they knew, escaping into nothing. They had been dragged physically, mentally and psychologically. When it came to their deaths, each man was at their breaking point. The real tension, when it came to my viewing, was between myself and the land. Watching these men starve in a rainforest, I was looking for a way out of the inevitable. It goes to show how desolate and deadly the Australian wilderness can be, even its most bountiful bushland.

  • 5
    Aaron
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Though I have not seen it yet, I hear its the true story of Alexander Pearce.
    Who again escaped and ate again.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pearce.

  • 6
    Kelly James
    Posted August 23, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    This film is an absolute piece of art. I saw it at MIFF and was completely amazed, not only for how beautiful it was, but for how gruelling the whole experience must have been for cast and crew. I was completely exhausted by the end. Some of these shots and some of the action (eg jumping into a raging river in Tassie in winter) would have killed lesser men. I felt like there was a direct connection between what we were seeing and how it must’ve been for the poor sods who escaped all that time ago. The resistance to glamming it up and filling it with cheap thrills was testament to Auf de Heide’s understanding of these people and this place. And I completely agree with Cody – the tension here was colonial. Nature vs Whitefella. Men with no understanding of the land they’ve been dumped in bashing on regardless. An important Australian film that deserves a wide audience.

  • 7
    Bruce D
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Saw “Van Diemen’s Land” last night at a Sydney preview with Q&A afterwards with the director and lead actor. Have to agree with Kelly – this is art, not a gorefest Hollywood crap movie, loosely based on a true story. There’s enough strong and grisly violence in it though to deter the faint hearted. I for one was glad that it wasn’t more in your face.
    I can’t agree that the narrative was ‘slow and sleepy’. What you see is a very realistic portrayal of what must have happened between the men. It seemed perfect for their real situation – hopelessly lost and starving in the south-west Tasmanian wilderness. They were there for several weeks, maybe up to a two months (?). They were totally unprepared, their Plan A having failed. They would have been overwhelmed and demoralised by the enormity of their situation and the wilderness they were in. This was all very well portrayed, as was their toughness, humanity, survival instinct and descent into cannibalism and madness. It’s interesting that the movie portrays as Pearce one of the least violent of the men. He survived because he knew what he had to do to survive. Returning to the horrors of the remote convict slave labour camp from which they escaped was not an option.
    Having the Irish convicts converse and think in Gaelic also works well, highlighting the tension between the English and Irish convicts. I also liked the long slow aerial shots of the wilderness and the music.
    It’s worth noting that the writers – the Director, Jonathan Auf Der Heide, and lead actor who played Alexander Pearce – met each other years ago and have been planning this project since. It’s fair to say both were obsessed with bringing this story to a wider audience. Consequently their interpretation is as historically accurate as possible and the film succeeds in achieving what it sets out to do – it does justice to the truth and our past.
    Auf Der Heide’s confession that he watched plenty of Werner Herzog films (think “Aguirre the Wrath of God”) and “Deliverance” in preparing to make “Van Diemen’s Land” and studiously avoided any films of the cannibal, horror, splatter genre is telling. “Lord of the Flies” was also mentioned. He has delivered a film to rank with Herzog’s mad Amazonian masterpiece. I hope it gets a wide release. Go see it and tell your friends. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

  • 8
    Greg G
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Pearce was never called the Pieman. That is rubbish added to the story after the publication of Sweeney Todd. Hopefully that name is not used in this film at all, as I’m quite looking forward to it.

  • 9
    thomasatnewsky
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    he was called the pieman you fool, lol. where do you think the name for the ‘pieman river’ came from? thats where they captured pearce the second time… and back in the UK he made pies by trade.

  • 10
    TassiePete
    Posted October 5, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Thomas,
    Please feel free to read Sprod’s rather excellent study in to Pearce. He was not from the UK, nor did he make pies.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieman_River
    The once-common suggestion that it was named after a convict “The Pieman” Alexander Pearce who was responsible for one of the few recorded instances of cannibalism in Australia, is not correct. “The Pieman” was in fact Thomas Kent of Southampton, a pastry-cook who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1816. After a long series of offences in the colony, he was sent to the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement in 1822 but subsequently escaped, and was recaptured near the mouth of the river which now bears his nickname.
    Sprod, Alexander Pearce of Macquarie Harbour (1977), pp106-18

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Pearce
    (Pearce) was originally a farm labourer from County Fermanagh who was sentenced at Armagh in 1819 to penal transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for “the theft of six pairs of shoes”
    The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce Anne-Marie Marquess, culturenorthernireland.org. Retrieved 2008-11-02 http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article.aspx?art_id=349

  • 11
    Alex
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    This movie is the pits! Total dross! Rubbish! No plot…no character development…no drama…nothing! What do we know about Pierce, at the end we didn’t know at the beginning? NOTHING, apart from his eating habits! Art? What art?

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  1. ...] photography and other elements viewers have come to expect from cannibal pictures (read my review here). A week after the film’s national release (it is now screening in cinemas across the [...

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