Van Diemen’s Land (2009)

Van Dieman’s Land is dull. It is competently constructed as a whole, deftly designed and well acted, but it meanders slowly towards a conclusion we already know. Perhaps served better as a drama-documentary rather than a dark, nihilistic horror film, it fails to excite, intrigue or compel. Well created, but tragically pointless.

In 1822 eight men escaped a British penal colony in Tasmania and trekked into the dense forests in search of freedom. There they found nothing but tough terrain and a distinct lack of food. One man survived. And Van Dieman’s Land is his story. His true story.

Knowing this unfortunately makes Van Dieman’s Land almost unwatchable. The inevitable conclusion it gradually trickles towards is never supposed to be subtle or hidden or a twist, it is merely fact, and an exploration into the psyche of men forced to do the most inhuman of things in order to survive. Yet it’s a sentence, it’s a paragraph, or a Wikipedia page at most, so a full-length feature film about this quickly becomes tiresome.

Nowadays you’d be sent on rehabilitation schemes in Walton-on-the-Naze or Alton Towers, but back in 1800s Britain the punishment was much more severe. Criminals were sent on ships to the edges of the Empire and thrown into harsh, forlorn wildernesses. One such prisoner was Alexander Pearce, a man imprisoned for “the theft of six pairs of shoes” in Ireland, who was sent to Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement – “The End of the World. A fine prison” – where he plotted to escape incarceration.

Alexander Pearce and seven others fled into the forests of Tasmania, deciding that whatever was out there could not be as bad as being a slave to the Empire. They were wrong. As hunger sets in, they contemplate eating the only available food source. Each other. Tired, afraid, paranoid and starving, the journey to freedom quickly becomes a desperate struggle for survival.

Van Dieman’s Land is beautifully made in a deliberately grim fashion. It paints a miserable picture of Tasmania in the 1800s, with harsh landscapes, overhanging greyness and confusingly endless greenery. Director Jonathan auf der Hiede makes even the simplest of things seem vile and unpleasant – the eating of meat becomes a ripping, dirty, chewy affair, for example. It gives a wonderful sense of time and place, and hopelessness and depression seeps from every frame. It is deftly made.

The acting is good too, the relatively unknown cast giving believable performances in all their rugged, exhausted brutality. The only problem with this is that the characters are simply very unlikable. They are escaped prisoners who’re filthy, untrustworthy and often callous, and unfortunately mostly unlikable. And that’s before the cannibalism kicks in…

Unlike other cannibalism-focused films – like Ravenous and AliveVan Dieman’s Land does not ask you to sympathize with the characters plight, but to merely watch the inevitable and terrible demise of their morals and humanity. This would have made a very interesting documentary, especially considering the eventual fate of Alexander Pearce, and would’ve worked perfectly as a dramatic documentary that delved more into the historical aspects of it rather than focusing on eight hungry men killing and eating each other in a forest.

Van Dieman’s Land is excellently crafted – the direction, the cinematography, the acting, the crunchingly desolate soundscape – but it simply does not work as a feature length film. The obvious conclusion and obvious path to get there leaves no intrigue, real drama or excitement for an audience to be captivated by. Van Dieman’s Land fails because of its story, but the creators should be proud of their work on it. It is an unfortunate shame of a movie.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

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