Van Diemen’s Land

In 1882, in the company of seven other men, Irish convict Alexander Pearce escaped from the harsh confines of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement into the even harsher wilds of the Tasmanian bush. Of all his companions, only Pearce survived.
Van Diemen’s Land
In 1882, in the company of seven other men, Irish convict Alexander Pearce escaped from the harsh confines of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement into the even harsher wilds of the Tasmanian bush. Of all his companions, only Pearce survived. After being recaptured Pearce claimed to have killed and eaten his fellow escapees. At the time, authorities refused to believe his claim, preferring to think that the other convicts were still living wild as bushrangers. It was only after Pearce again escaped, with a single companion whose flesh was discovered in Pearce’s pockets when he was later recaptured, that the cannibal convict’s gruesome tale was accepted as the truth. Alexander Pearce’s story has previously inspired the unsuccessful Australian horror film, Dying Breed (2008), in which Pearce’s inbred descendents stalk and kill the film’s unlikeable protagonists; and the Irish-Australian co-production, The Last Testament of Alexander Pearce (2008), which screened on ABC1 in January this year. Now comes Jonathan auf der Heide’s compelling and disquieting Van Diemen’s Land, the latest film to explore Pearce’s life and crimes. Based upon his own award-winning short film, Hell’s Gates (2008), it stars co-writer Oscar Redding (director of the Dogme-inspired film, The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, shot on Melbourne’s mean streets in 2007), as an almost sympathetic Pearce, with some of Melbourne’s finest actors – including Black Lung Theatre members Thomas Wright and Mark Winter – helping to flesh out the remaining cast. The film focuses on Pearce’s first escape, and details the tragic circumstances that led to Australia’s best documented case of cannibalism. It’s a cool and considered film, and auf der Heide makes great use of space and silence, with his characters dwarfed by the landscape they move through. He obtains excellent performances from all his performers, although the screenplay unfortunately fails to clearly define the characters they play. This lack of clarity, coupled with auf der Heide’s tendency to tell his story through atmosphere and style rather than through drama, unfortunately distances the audience from the characters, and reduces the impact of their deaths when they eventually come – it’s hard to care about characters whom one knows so little about. That said, auf der Heide generates significant tension at times, beautifully if brutally conveying the horror of the convicts’ crimes the first time that starvation and desperation drive them to kill and eat one of their compatriots. As its title suggests, the Tasmanian landscape plays a central role in the film; the bush is as much a character as the murderous lovers Matthew Travers (played by Paul Ashcroft) and Robert Greenhill (Arthur Algel), or any of the other convicts who accompany Pearce on the ill-omened escape attempt. Thanks to the superb cinematography of Ellery Ryan, who has shot the film in cool greys and greens, the threat implicit in the harsh terrain which the escapees must traverse is palpable in every scene; and the soundtrack by composer Jethro Woodward further enriches the film’s bleak and desolate atmosphere. Van Diemen’s Land is a contemplative exploration of terrible crimes, a film both visceral and poetic. Although not wholly successful, it nonetheless marks Jonathan auf der Heide as a remarkable filmmaking talent whose work I will watch keenly in the future. Van Diemen’s Land Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide Screenplay by Jonathan Auf Der Heide and Oscar Redding Stars Oscar Redding, Greg Stone, Torquil Neilson, Mark Leonard Winter, Tom Wright, Paul Ashcroft and Arthur Angel Produced by Jonathan Auf Der Heide, Rachael Deller-Pincott, Maggie Miles and Oscar Redding Cinematography by Ellery Ryan Score by Jethro Woodward Rated MA In cinemas nationally from Thursday September 24 vandiemensland-themovie.com
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Richard Watts

Wednesday 23 September, 2009

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts