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:: Van Diemen's Land

A striking debut from director Jonathan Auf der Heide, Van Diemen’s Land is an extension of his earlier short film Hell’s Gates. Rather than sensationalise the story of Alexander Pearce, a man reputed to be Tasmania’s most notorious cannibal, as the recent genre film Dying Breed took great pains to ensure, Auf der Heide takes a more even-handed, naturalistic approach to the events leading up to his eventual capture.

It’s 1822 in what we now know as Tasmania and repeat offenders have been sent to Macquarie Harbor, an indentured living hell where life consists of menial, degrading duties under the eye of British soldiers. A group of eight – a mix of Irish, English and Scottish convicts – decide upon mutiny, preferring to take their chances in the dense, harsh wilderness than subject themselves to further torment at their jailer’s hands.

As their stock of food rapidly diminishes, a taboo-shattering course of action - cannibalism - is invoked by a primordial desperation. A profound depression, exacerbated by nature closing in with its oppressive embrace, besets the group. Although racked by hunger and weariness, insomnia follows, a state of mind informed mostly by paranoia and a natural extension of their circumstances with Auf der Heide taking pains from the outset to show how little trust exists within the group.

One by one their numbers begin to dwindle as a horrific process of trimming the fat begins. Their humanity is questioned on some primal level (and obliquely referenced in Pearce’s Gaelic voiceover) as the central figure of Robert Greenhill (Arthur Angel), their leader and instigator of the murder for sustenance, surrounds himself with like-minded followers. But ultimately no individual is safe from the terrible blows that can fall at any time.

Needing to be swift and ruthless, Auf der Heide ensures disturbing impact is felt in every axe strike. A sack containing separated remains of the latest victim becomes a worthy, bloodied metaphor for the guilt attached to their souls as they continue their forlorn quest into a seeming oblivion. Always lingering on the periphery is the calculating, inscrutable Pearce (Oscar Redding) who bows down to Greenhill’s ghoulish initial suggestion, even when the intended first victim is his closet allay, Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter).

The film’s measured pace is sure to be off-putting to some, combined with a grinding, inexorable countdown in what amounts to a grisly paring back of edible adversaries. But even in these claustrophobic surrounds, Auf der Heide finds stark poetry in moments of existential horror. A gorgeous lingering shot of the final pair, wilting but sustained by fear as they stand in a clearing is a genuinely haunting moment, elevated by the magnificent eye of cinematographer Ellery Ryan whose otherwise monochromatic displacement of colour lends the film a ghostly, bleached look.

The lack of restraint in the final stages of the film is notable for creating tension; here Auf der Heide keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum, using the weightless silence to fill the void with the density of the deeds that have led to this final confrontation. Perhaps even more remarkable is not allowing this liberal re-imagining of history to spill over into glaringly obvious horror mode. It would have been so easy to play up the intrinsically gory aspects of these men’s predicament into something akin to full-blown revulsion. Rather, the horror is contained within the context of its grim reality, the all-encompassing reach of mother nature getting the better of them as they're driven by sheer desperation towards extreme solutions to stay alive.

Savage and disturbing, Van Diemen’s Land is a remarkable debut; drawing powerful inferences from a tumultuous history, it illustrates how little dignity is salvaged from the instinctive drive to maintain life in the face of dark, elemental forces, both from nature and within. This proves to be yet another worthy addition to the rapidly expanding list of quality local films released in 2009.