Review: Van Diemen's Land ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Review: Van Diemen's Land

I first encountered the story of Alexander Pearce around 15 years ago in Robert Hughes's indispensible history, The Fatal Shore. It's a narrative notable for its brutal mathematics: eight men escaped from the notorious punishment camp of Port Macquarie, established on the far side of Tasmania, and entered what is still some of the harshest wilderness in Australia. One man, Alexander Pearce, survived.

Pearce gave a statement to authorities after his eventual capture in which he confessed to killing and eating his companions. It was so outlandishly grotesque that they refused to believe it, thinking that he was covering for his fellow escapees. But after Pearce escaped again and was caught with human flesh in his pockets, they hanged him. When Marcus Clark based an episode in For The Term of His Natural Life on Pearce's story, he was assured notoriety as the "cannibal convict".

Discussing Pearce's statement, Hughes comments that it "might have come from an Elizabethan revenge tragedy..." And it's not surprising that this tale should be the subject of a film. What is a little surprising is that last year no fewer than three movies drew on Alexander Pearce's story for their premise: The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, directed by Michael James Rowland, which ran on ABC-TV a couple of weeks ago; a cannibal horror-fest called Dying Breed; and a modestly brilliant short film by VCA graduate Jonathan Auf Der Heide, called Hell's Gates. Clearly something is in the zeitgeist; of which more in a moment.

Hell's Gates won Auf Der Heide the Melbourne Airport Emerging Filmmaker and Best Student Film awards at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival. He then announced that he planned to raise a laughably miniscule budget from private sources and make a feature-length version in the wilds of Tasmania; a quixotic adventure indeed, the kind of thing that warms the cockles of Ms TN's heart, as long as she isn't out there freezing her tender bits off in the snow. And against all probability the result, Van Diemen's Land, premiered last week at the Adelaide Film Festival.

Anyone familiar with Melbourne theatre will recognise a few names in the production listings. Oscar Redding, who co-wrote the film with Auf Der Heide as well as playing Alexander Pearce, was the director of The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, a Dogme-style gem filmed in the streets of night-time Melbourne that started off life as a remarkable theatre production. Thomas Michael Wright and Mark Leonard Winter have been making names for themselves as members of the anarchic Black Lung collective. Greg Stone is a fixture on Melbourne's main stages and deservedly regarded as one of our finest theatre actors, and John Francis Howard has been a stalwart of experimental Melbourne theatre for decades. The film's music is by Jethro Woodward, who is a well-known theatre composer. Auf Der Heide himself is no stranger to independent stages: I first saw him as a very young actor in the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project.

Van Diemen's Land emerges, in fact, from Melbourne's independent theatre culture, which explains my personal interest as well as, I think, its romanticism. For all the savagery of its story, the visual beauty of this film harks back to the haunting poetry of some classic Australian films of the 1970s - Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance, or Peter Weir's The Last Wave. And like those films, it is driven by an urgent sense of self-definition, a desire to grapple with the received ideas of what it means to be Australian. From its opening moments, which quote a 19th century newspaper article that compares Australia's founding with the equally bloody birth of Rome, Pearce's story is presented as a foundational myth of nationhood.

I suspect the recent fascination with Pearce might be, consciously or not, a corrective to the nationalism which came to the fore under the Howard Government, which fetishised the bronzed Aussie heroes of Gallipoli as the noble sacrificial emblems of nationhood. This story is earlier and uglier, and is a brutal reminder of the predatory and violent act of colonisation. Notably, in this story the colonial predation is, quite literally, on the colonists themselves.

Van Diemen's Land makes a fascinating contrast with Terrence Malick's film The New World, which also looks at an early moment of colonisation, this time of America. Both films share a fascination with landscape, and in fact feature almost identical shots of rivers opening lyrically through forested hills and dizzying silhoettes of trees against sky. But the differences are striking. The New World was a projection of Renaissance Europe, a fantasy of savage splendour and fertility. Two centuries later, Australia was its dystopian answer: a penal colony, the creation of Georgian bureaucracy, which became synonymous with authoritarian brutality. Its initial promise of fertility turned out to be a mirage, its landscape and Indigenous people indifferent, even hostile, to European notions of wealth.

Where Malick forges a myth of innocence betrayed, Auf Der Heide's film dramatises the Australia whose intellectual patrons were, as Hughes says, Hobbes and De Sade. There is the merest glimpse of innocence in this film, and the beauty of the landscape - emphasised by the wintry bluish light of the cinematography - is the beauty of indifference, primeval and impenetrable and inhuman. Van Diemen's Land is, just as the New World was, a European projection, and here its foreignness - and reflexively, the foreignness of the people moving through it - is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. Like the penal colonies, the environment is closed and claustrophobic; the landscape the convicts see is, as the colonists claimed it was, a Terra Nullius.

Against this indifferent landscape, which is filmed with the tenderness of a Tarkovsky, Auf Der Heide places the human rhythms of his characters. The story is reduced to its simplest form: it begins with the convicts' escape, and ends when Pearce is finally alone, before his capture and return to (comparative) civilisation. It's partly narrated with a poetic (and very beautiful) voiceover spoken in Irish, the fictional inner voice of Pearce which rubs hard against the tough dialogue. The action moves inexorably through day and night, from meal to meal, charting the degradation of its characters as they face the realities of starvation and murder, the stark choice between living and dying.

Just as much as it's a story about Australia, this is a story about men: there are no women, just as there are no Aboriginals. And what makes this film, besides Ellery Ryan's stunning cinematography, is the strength of the performances. They open subtle spaces in this most inhuman of stories, admitting the textures of humour, friendship, loyalty, even innocence and love.

It's a truly ensemble cast, and their commitment means that there are no false notes. And you also have to admire their physical courage. As with Werner Herzog's crazy adventures in the South American jungle - Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre - you can't but be aware of the literal reality behind the story: there's a verisimilitude in the performances that goes beyond acting. Among other things, this is a film that makes you acutely aware of the vulnerability of the human body, and there are scenes here - aside from the horrors of the very convincing butchery - that make you wince: Oscar Redding as Pearce walking barefoot through freezing primeval forest, for instance, or the ragged cast shivering on the top of a bare mountain in flurries of snow, or Adrian Mulrany, as a hapless guard, trussed naked and tied to a tree.

I'm certain that Van Diemen's Land will attract notice on the festival circuit, and equally certain it will be watched years hence. It's unlikely to be a box office winner - the grim story will see to that - but its uncompromising poetic means that it's one of the few Australian films that genuinely deserves the appellation of "art". If it comes your way, don't miss it.

Ms TN flew to Adelaide as a guest of Madman Entertainment.

Van Diemen's Land website


Chris Boyd said...

Forgive me asking a dumb, reductive question... but does it work? As a full-length feature? It was so perfect as a short film (I saw it at Nova last year when it was screened to potential investors) that I was a bit apprehensive as to whether it could be reconceived as a feature-length film. Is it as good?

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I think it does, and better than I expected. There are things that surprise you, if you saw Hell's Gates, and an inevitable shift of emphasis - it's more than a longer version of the short film. The only thing that made me wonder was whether at one stage the rhythms became too predictable, but that vanished pretty swiftly. Interesting how much variousness is found in such a sternly limited pallet. Anyway, I'm sure you'll get a chance to see for yourself.

Unknown said...

Chris, I saw a rough cut of the feature and didn't see the original version but, for what it's worth: I thought the feature length version really worked. I can only imagine in a different way to the first version, in that what distinguishes the feature length film from most others is the time it takes with shots and cuts. Where most mainstream films cut away from introspection and power the story forward, this one sits in shots, rests with the actors and is edited with the sense of mystery and deliberation that its setting and mood dictates.

What does it mean to say a film is european? It's a stupid (possibly racist - continentist?) assertion, but this film felt to me - in the most general sense - that it had a european sensibility in this way. I guess I mean that it is anti US studio, it doesn't feel the need to explain narratively, it trusts the power of its own narrative and the focus and authority of its extremely fine cast and crew to deliver up a piece of art that is a fused, wholly realised collaboration between art, technique and a (presumed) thinking audience. An australian film of incredible artistic, political and social sophistication.

See it - I think you'll love it. But you are a bit of a maverick sometimes :)... x tom healey

Anonymous said...

Wow, Tom. You had me persuaded after the first par.

The Maverick

Alison Croggon said...

Was I not persuasive enough? But yes, with Tom all the way! It's a completely gorgeous film.

Anonymous said...

A bit late to come in on this one but I thought it was a stunning piece of cinema. Along with Warwick Thornton's "Samson and Delilah" and Glendyn Ivan's "Last Ride" marking a renassiance and generational shift in our film making.

I particulalr admire their loyalty to the spirit of collaboration that underpins this film and their refusal to bow down to the "market" insistence to cast up. What we get in its place is a true ensemble of relatively unknown actors (at least in cinema); proof of the depth of acting talent we have.

I hope Australian audiences support this film.

Unknown said...

Deeply moving,hauntingly beautiful scenery,excellent acting,directing and camera work.
This superb movie has made me to realize what kind of suffering physical and mental one does have to endure to survive.
It shall stay in my mind for many years.
Jonathan and all the crew congratulations.