Van Diemen’s Land

Review by Jane Freebury

The Tasmanian tourism industry won’t be thanking our film industry for its interest in an Irish convict called Alexander Pearce who was hanged in Hobart in 1824 for murder and cannibalism. Then again, maybe it will. After all, watching either of the two feature films or recent telefeature about Pearce could lend a gothic chill to camping out in those dense, dark Tassie forests.

While it’s hard to explain this sudden rush of interest in Pearce over the last year, it is also surprising that his story hasn’t inspired other movies before now. It is, after all, quite some years since Hannibal Lecter and his Academy Award, when the subject of cannibalism went a little bit mainstream.

I missed The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce on TV but did catch Dying Breed when it had a brief season in cinemas late last year. Set on the Pieman River in the state’s northwest it was naturally full of fantastic location shots as a group of city kids in a 4WD wind their way deep into the wilderness. Unfortunately for them they run across an isolated settlement of snaggle-toothed descendants of the convict, who are soon smacking their lips over the well-fed human quarry that has fallen into their clutches.

Unlike Dying Breed, this latest film on Pearce is not a candidate for an ‘after dark’ horror fest. Made with due attention to historical detail—no descendants of Pearce exist—and filmed in a naturalistic style, Van Diemen’s Land travels deep into our heart of darkness, which in this case is deep into the glorious Tasmanian wilderness.

Director Jonathan auf der Heide, who co-wrote the screenplay with his lead actor, Oscar Redding (Pearce), has achieved a very grim and moderately interesting film, if not a really compelling one. The gruff camaraderie between the eight men who escape together holds the group together to begin with. There are even some jokes and they swap advice about women, but when the last of the flour is used for damper and in the apparent absence of any local fauna to hunt, the weakest, youngest and least iron-willed in the party start to look very vulnerable. And when the last vestiges of civilisation are stripped away, there are only two men left, too afraid to sleep, who watch each other in the light of their campfire.

There is great scenery and a convincing naturalistic approach in this vivid account of the months desperate men spent in the wilderness as they made their way from the notorious Macquarie Harbour penal settlement to the settled lands in Tasmania’s east. But the film forgets to ask why these awful events took place. A question worth exploring.

In a capsule: A very grim account of an escaped convict charged with cannibalism in Tasmania in the early 19th century. Great scenery, a convincing naturalistic approach, but this tale of man stripped of civilisation invests so much on realism, it forgets to explore what lay behind the awful events.

3 stars

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