Van Diemen's Land

Van Diemen's Land


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The history of Tasmania lends itself to horror. Originally named Van Diemen's Land, it was Australia's primary penal colony. As one of the characters early in the film puts it: "The end of the world. A fine prison." Here it was that thousands did hard labour in hopes of earning 'ticket-of-leave' parole, while many more just dreamed of escape. Among its most infamous denizens was Alexander Pearce, who confessed to living off the flesh of fellow escapees when he tried to flee. Last year, his story became the jumping off point for derivative gore-fest Dying Breed, but here - retelling Pearce's story - debut feature director Jonathan auf der Heide gives a much more humanistic edge to the horror.

We meet Pearce (Oscar Reading) - who provides sporadic voice-over in Gaelic - as he and a raggle-taggle group of fellow convicts plot escape. Once they have quit the colony, however, it is clear their 'leader' Robert Greenhill (Arthur Angel) is going to have problems maintaining unity, particularly when the group begin to split down nationalist lines - half are English, the other half Irish, and therefore begin to plot in Gaelic. As food supplies start to run low, it seems the unspeakable is about to be said...

Copy picture

There are problems with this film but its overall look and feel suggest that there is much more - and probably much better - to come from auf der Heide. His use of colour is exemplary, with the bleached out cinematography mirroring the wilderness landscape the men find themselves in, its harshness broken only by the snatches of red on the soldiers uniforms and, later, the warmth of the convicts' fire. This is a cold and sombre environment from which is borne a cold and sombre film. Auf der Heide's use of soundscape is also clever, playing up the animalistic nature of eating, even before things take a serious turn for the unpleasant.

The difficulties stem, not from the look of the film, nor from the acting - which calls for strong physical performances and is superb across the board - but from the nature of the plot which, inevitably sees the men picked off one by one. As the number of protagonists dwindles, the tension diminishes, so that instead of building to a conclusion, it, like it central characters, begins to run out of meat to sustain its 104-minute runtime. Worth catching, however, so you can tell everyone you came across auf der Heide's distinctive direction before he was famous - on the evidence here, it won't be long before he is.

Reviewed on: 29 Jul 2009
Share this with others on...
Things get desperate after a prison breakout in Tasmania in 1822.
Amazon link

Director: Jonathan auf der Heide

Starring: Oscar Redding, Jason Glover, Thomas Wright, Paul Ashcroft, Arthur Angel, Mark Winter

Year: 2009

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Australia

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Terra Nova