Period 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.