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Director Bill Bennett’s quietly anticipated latest feature “In A Savage Land” is an ambitious film that, under the guise of a romantic epic, attempts to tackle sexual politics and the effect that western imperialism has had on primitive cultures. It’s all a bit too much to take in but if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and digest the many themes presented; it’s a journey worth taking. Part love story, part history lesson, the film centres on Evelyn Spence (Maya Stange), a student of anthropology, and her husband Phillip (Martin Donovan) who travel together to the exotic New Guinea islands of Trobriand to study the sexual behaviour of the islanders. Here they are forced to face their own conflicting beliefs concerning the study and their failing relationship. Frustrated, the headstrong Evelyn embarks on her own research of the women islanders, but this leads to an upset of taboos, which threatens their relationship and the position they hold as anthropologists. With her ambitions and desires challenged, Evelyn turns to Mick (Rufus Sewell), a handsome pearl trader and as World War 2 breaks out, they face their repressed feelings for each other, and the threat from the Japanese.
Newcomer Maya Stange puts in an impressive performance as the determined Evelyn, the character requiring her to go from bookish bluestocking to half clad island woman. She plays her as a true modern heroine, mastering the prejudices facing her sex and the emotional influences of the island. Martin Donovan has the unenviable task of playing the rather staid Phillip Spence. Fortunately, Donovan brings some compassion to his role, so you do feel for him when Mick catches Evelyn’s eye. Rufus Sewell fits the rough diamond character of Mick very well and manages to steer clear of the cliched matinee idol image to bring some complexity to his scenes with Stange.
The supporting cast features other notable performances from John Howard as the staunchly Scottish missionary Ian MacGregor, Max Cullen, the belligerent Douglas Stephens, and Susan Lyons as his long suffering wife Helen. Director Bill Bennett opts for a documentary feel using grainy film stocks and hand held camera. This, accompanied by David Bridie’s tribal influenced score, is very effective and reminded me of the national geographic documentaries of the seventies. It’s a well-researched film set in a fascinating place. The storyline does suffer by striving to be a cinematic epic but strong performances from the cast and the real Trobriand natives make it an interesting and thought-provoking experience.