Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

Van Diemen’s Land concerns the legend of Alexander Pearce, also know as ‘The Pieman’, an Irish man sent to the penal colony on Tasmania in the 1820s for theft who then

escaped and was eventually caught, whereupon it was discovered that he had human bones in his pockets, having survived by eating his fellow escapees.

Thankfully this version of the legend – apparently based on Pearce’s confession – is nothing like another recent horror film Dying Breed, which imagines a present-day inbred Pearce ancestry now fixated on hunting and eating human flesh.

The film follows a straightforward, and not unfamiliar (especially to fans of the western), narrative of escape and a perilous journey to freedom, doomed from the start.
This is a film very much about the strangeness of the wilderness and what it does to men, as well as being firmly placed in a colonial past which clearly sits very uneasily with post-colonial Australia. The film features absolutely no condemnation of the cannibalism that occurred, and which involved most of the convicts, not just Pearce, but certainly offers a critical perspective on a story that is firmly contextualised by the system that brought convicts to Sarah Island.
The differences between the English, Irish and Scots men brought together in this way are well realised, and bring an additional undercurrent of tension to their increasingly hopeless journey which rounds out the narrative.

Yet, for all its cannibalism and violent death, Van Diemen’s Land doesn’t appear to be much like a horror film, or at least not like the majority of modern American horror (since the market is firmly cornered by Michael Bay and his relentlessly empty-headed remakes).
In fact, everything about the film screams thoughtful quality (something Bay wouldn’t know if it smacked him in the face), and feels closer to the grim and gothic tone of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005). Indeed, comparison with that earlier film is quite instructive, as both share certain similarities, of time and place (both in Australia when it was a colony, though in very different but equally bleak and unrelenting landscapes – Van Diemen’s Land is dark, cold and barren, whilst The Proposition is scorched, sweaty and also bereft of life) and most forcefully in their aesthetic decisions.
Distinctive, and quite similar in sound and texture (both prominently featuring the violin) in both is the score: The Proposition features a soundtrack co-written by Nick Cave (who wrote the screenplay) and Warren Ellis, and bears a fairly close relationship to their work as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as Ellis’ band Dirty Three; the music of Van Diemen’s Land was composed by Jethro Woodward, which sounds like he rather likes Dirty Three. Although Woodward’s score is haunting and beautiful, and rather suits the impenetrable, but beautiful landscape of the film, it did become rather overbearing at times in its directing of emotional tone.

A range of decisions mark the film as meditative. Most prominent of these is the repeated use of Pearce’s voice-over in combination with long drifting shots of a wide river, the banks of which are populated by dense forest. The voice-over is made beautiful, but impenetrable (like the landscape that it occurs in conjunction with) by the fact that it is in (what I assume is) Gaelic, accompanied by tiny subtitles.
Indeed, their impenetrable quality predominantly reflects the tone and construction of point of view in the film. The narrative might be straightforward, but a great deal of the rest of it isn’t. In particular the construction of Pearce and Oscar Redding’s performance is characterised by an inscrutability; the film seems to be offering him as sympathetic in various ways, but his behaviour is not entirely so. Throughout the film he seems reserved but also vulnerable and submissive, yet he also seems to have no fixed loyalties and an incredibly strong sense of self-preservation.

Although there is a lot to like about the film, which is successful in various ways (the narrative is straightforward and suitably bleak from the start; the performances of all the cast are strong and offer characterisation that lift the narrative beyond its simple construction; much of the visual quality of the film is evocative and brings the right kind of tone), the opaqueness of it made it difficult to feel fully engaged.
The moodiness also contributed to a rather over-reflective and at times too slow paced drama.

Movie Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

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