Movies about cannibalism come in two (and a half) distinct varieties. They’ll either go the exploitation/entertainment route with films like Cannibal Holocaust, Sweeney Todd, and Delicatessen, or they’ll go for the dramatic angle with films like Alive and Keep The River On Your Right. (The remaining one half is the rare combination of the two and my favorite of the genre… Ravenous). The dramatic ones are usually more powerful as they present an uncompromising and bleak look at one of the rawer aspects of humanity. They ask what it would take and how long we might last before the darkness within us all rises up and usurps not only the rule of law and common decency, but our table manners as well…
In 1822 Tasmania a group of prisoners escape from their captor and head off into the wilderness toward freedom. At least that was the plan. Instead the group find a never-ending landscape of mountains, woodlands, and raging rapids, but as dangerous and inhospitable as the natural world is, they soon discover the real threat is within themselves and each other. Mistrust, greed, and hunger all take root and one by one the convicts fall prey to the innate hostility of man. Food runs out, tensions rise, and allegiances form out of desperation and fear. Will anyone survive long enough to see their next meal? Or will they become one instead?
Van Diemen’s Land is based on the true story of Alexander Pearce and his legendary escape and subsequent involvement in the fates of seven fellow prisoners. It clearly falls on the side of cannibalism drama with not a single scene being sensationalized. This historical retelling of Australia’s most famous case of people eating people is instead a somber drama of men faced with a cruel reality far harsher than the prison world they’ve just escaped. They wear their hunger and fears on their faces (and they wear the brutally cold winds and streams on their shriveled dongers). Pearce (Oscar Redding) is a quiet man, something he himself tells us in the film’s brilliant narration. He isn’t telling the story, but he is enhancing it with observation and poetry. He’s a friend to fellow convict Travers (Paul Ashcroft), but is wary of the rest. His unease rests mostly with violent offender Greenhill (Arthur Angel) who happens to be the one who first introduces the idea of flesh-eating to the men. The three men join the five others in realizing that they’ve simply traded one prison for another.
Is it possible to feel claustrophobic in an expanse as great as this Tasmanian wilderness? It certainly seems so at times. Director/co-writer Jonathan Auf Der Heide shows us a world that seems to go on forever but is still as confining as a jail cell. Forests as dense as prison bars, mountainous parapets engulfed in ice and snow, and ice-cold rivers that freeze blood and shrink scrotums all help corral the convicts towards their fate. Heide’s eye for landscape and camera shots is matched by his choice and direction of actors. All of the men give solid performances and often communicate more with a sideways glance or resigned expression then some actors do with pages of dialogue.
For a film with cannibalism at its core though, the movie is surprisingly bloodless and lacking in practical effects. Men are felled with axe blows that in all but one case seem to leave their flesh unscathed. Stylistic choice or budgetary restraint? I expect it’s the latter, and while it doesn’t lessen the film’s power it stands out in its absence. That same sensibility extends to the cannibalism itself. Bodies are harvested for jerky, but we don’t see it happening. When the bodies are shown afterward they appear wholly intact even as a blood-soaked burlap sack of cutlets implies otherwise. Several times we have to assume they’ve already eaten the flesh, too, as we rarely seen them sitting down for a bite. Most glaring is the lack of that initial sit-down. The first time they have to struggle with a choice between hunger and disgust and decide which feeling is stronger in their bellies. The first time they hold the meat in their trembling hands before giving in and devouring the flesh before them. We get to see none of that and instead are forced to assume it was a difficult decision.
The film’s other major drawback is in it’s lack of character connection with the audience. There’s really no one for the audience to bond with or to, no one to take the film’s journey with. This is due to two factors mainly… For one, the characters are pretty much interchangeable and easily confused for each other in the first thirty minutes. Their names aren’t mentioned frequently, and they look fairly similar in their prison uniforms and scraggly facial hair. Second, none of the characters are all that sympathetic, and then they just drop one by one. The film becomes a series of chapters or sections… one is killed and eaten, the survivors walk, another is killed and eaten, the survivors walk, yet another is killed and eaten, the survivors walk…
Van Diemen’s Land is a stark and beautiful drama filled with empty spaces and silences. It does a good job of showing how the beauties of nature can turn into things both dangerous and fierce, but it doesn’t manage the same feat when it comes to people. The characters basically become cannibals off-screen, so while we see them struggle with their environment we don’t see them struggle with the film’s most fascinating aspect. This case is the fastest known incident of people turning to cannibalism for survival, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for any kind of insight as to why that is. Instead, Van Diemen’s Land will have to settle for being a beautiful and beautifully-acted drama that shows men at their very worst… without showing how they got there.
The Upside: Beautiful vistas; Pearce’s narration is poetic; fantastic acting; sound design is disgustingly perfect during opening eating scene
The Downside: No real character to identify with due to their behavior and the fact that they are all interchangeable for the first thirty minutes or so; the descent into cannibalism hits surprisingly fast and with seemingly little emotional struggle
On the Side: The screenplay is based on actual court records and transcripts of Pearce’s own confessions.