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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.30.09] movie review thriller

Year: 2009
Directors: Jonathan Auf Der Heide
Writers: Jonathan Auf Der Heide & Oscar Redding
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: projectcyclops
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Van Diemen's Land is the feature debut by Tasmanian director, Jonathan auf der Heide, a full-length adaptation of his short, Hell’s Gates. The film, set in the year 1882, tells the story of a group of convicts who manage to escape from a penal colony in ‘Van Diemen’s land’ (British occupied Tasmania). The group is made up of several Irish and Scottish men, and one understandably put upon Englishman. They traverse the brutal landscape in a futile attempt to reach Macquarie Harbour, where they hope to find a ship, and escape the island.

The retelling of a true story, in which the group succumbed to in-fighting, violence, extreme hunger and life threatening injuries, eventually breaking down and falling into a revolting pattern of murder and cannibalism, as told after the recapture of the sole survivor, Alexander Pearce, a Gaelic speaking Irishman. The first half-hour is, without doubt I think, the most enthralling and entertaining. When the group first escapes, spirits are high and the sense of freedom, before grim realization sets-in, is palpable and well conveyed, with a sense of very human and ‘devil-may-care’ humour. However, when things quickly take a turn for the worse, the film becomes harsh and deeply unsettling, developing into a slow moving slog of repetitive murders, and ever more challenging terrain.

Pacing aside, presentation is fantastic. One thing I can’t fault the film on is how impressively well shot it is. Director Heide has drained the colour from the film, and we’re offered a haunting green and gray landscape of forests and rivers. It’s an environment as cruel as anyone could imagine, and despair and hopelessness start to creep into the dynamic, leaving the men paranoid, as well as exhausted and scared. For me, this is the film’s downfall. After the initial set-up, which is engaging and enjoyable, the tone quickly becomes dark and brooding, and although that’s what one should expect from a film of this nature, it just felt cruel and unrelenting. It’s an undeniably powerful film, with great performances by all involved, but for me it became difficult to watch, and in some cases, unjustifiably nasty.

The narrative is punctuated by the thoughts of Alexander, who’s not so much the protagonist (in fact there are several far more dominant personalities at play), but rather the unwilling Last Man Standing. He’s written here as a more gentle soul, who saves his own life merely as a last resort, and a means to an end. We’re not supposed to root for him per say, but at least sympathize with the terrible choices he’s forced to make, and to follow through.

To sum-up my thoughts; as I was leaving a public screening of the film, which I’d managed to sneak into after missing the press one, a young man turned to his girlfriend and apologized, saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was that kind of film…” Stony faced, she gave him a, ‘none for you tonight, buster’, look, and I made a mental note. If you’re into survivalist stories, brutal historical fiction, or even just get a kick from watching life on the edge, this is a well crafted film and I can recommend it as an experience, as something to toughen-up and engage with.

Just don’t take your date.

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Easely (13 years ago) Reply

The escape was in 1822 (and says so in the film titles/captions) and the convicts were escaping from Macquarie Harbour (not heading for it), hoping to do so by sea but the plan goes wrong and they end up trying to get to Hobart on the other side of the island, unfortunately escaping into some of the most forbidding, life-devoid forest in the world.

The film successfully demonstrates that if survival is man's prime responsibility, these hapless men, escapees from an extremely harsh society as well as jail, had no choice but to consume the weakest among them, something that usually only happened to survivors of ships wrecked at sea.


Anonymous (13 years ago) Reply

I would say that the movie sounds inaccurate as well, if it leads you not to see alexander as evil, since the second time he escaped he was caught eating human flesh even though he still had other food, and a missing companion....

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