Van Diemen's Land (2009)

Director Jonathan auf der Heide
Writers Jonathan auf der Heide, Oscar Redding
Starring Oscar Redding, Arthur Angel, Paul Ashcroft, Mark Leonard Winter, Torquil Neilson, Greg Stone, John Francis Howard
Genre Period Drama
Tagline Hunger is a strange silence.

Talk us through it

In 1822 times are tough Down Under with the convict population held at Tasmania's Macquarie Harbour bearing the brunt of depravations. Alexander Pearce, thanks to a recent flock of movies Australia's most notorious prisoner, and seven fellow convicts escape into the Taswegian bush in a bid for freedom. Almost immediately their plans are thwarted by the unexpected appearance of colonial troopers stopping their intended escape route via boat.

Fearing the hangman's noose the convicts decide to trek overland to civilisation rather than turn back. Unfortunately none of the eight are quite aware of how harsh and barren the Tasmanian forests are. Faced with coldness, starvation, and physically weakened the convicts turn to the only source of food available, each other. We could almost run a certain other movie's tag on this one, "who will survive and what will be left of them".

Ready to try the local cuisine, it's the meat lovers special apparently.


"Four godless men walk to the devil" - Alexander Pearce

I'm just going to get this out of the way upfront, Van Diemen's Land is on the slow burner throughout its run time with the odd murder punctuating an intense study of a group of men pushed to the extreme. So if you need fast action and lots of nekkid chicks then you are in the wrong review and can quite comfortably go and find a write-up for the latest brain deadening effort from the Boredwood horror conveyor belt of convenience. If on the other hand you enjoy well constructed dramas that take time to get where they are going then by all means continue reading.

Director Jonathan auf der Heide hit's a major with his first scene and the movie doesn't take a backward step from that moment onwards. Someone unseen is busy eating some unidentified meat in pretty sloppy fashion, which sort of gives you the feeling we're going to be right in the long pork almost from the first scene. der Heide gradually pulls back and we find we have been watching some unknown colonial officer tucking into a plate of what looks like mutton. Before you can really get your bearings the Director is off and running with one hell of a money shot. A group of convicts are lined up on a river bank, bare foot, ill clothed, and clearly freezing in pretty bleak looking weather. It's going to get somewhat worse before it gets better for the prisoners. With an economy worthy of a miser der Heide has got us into the squalor the convicts endured during colonial times and gives a good enough reason why desperate men will turn to desperate measures to escape their lot in life.

Writers Jonathan auf der Heide and Oscar Redding continue their minimalistic approach to things right through the movie, so you really will have to listen to the dialogue to get a lot of the nuances that are going down. It's a clever piece of writing and shows full respect for the Audience.

der Heide is a stylist behind the camera and imbues his movie with the sort of cinematic splendour and epic qualitues that you would expect from much larger productions.

Another aspect of der Heide and Redding's writing that I found interesting was the use of Gaelic, a heavy amount of Van Diemen is sub titled as the Irish characters talk in their native tongue. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it sure does add some authenticity to the movie. Guess I should point out that if you don't like foreign language films then you might want to choose something else.

Throughout the course of the movie der Heide makes ample use of the stunning Tasmanian hinterland to highlight both the isolation the escapees find themselves in and the share bloody cold weather they are enduring. We get plenty of long shots showing a general lack of civilisation around the next bend, as well as some pretty decent medium work that implies the Tassie bush is another form of prison. Without overly stating things the Director gives the distinct impression that his convicts have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

At various stage we get well constructed frames of the environment with no one visible in it, generally this coincides with a bit of Alexander Pearce's personal philosophy, as Alex is a quiet man and doesn't talk much to his companions. There's almost a poetic feeling to Pearce's thoughts and he comes across as a far more complex character than he would otherwise be shown as.

Of course we all know, at least Down Under, how the story is going to go. We're talking cannibalism with only one survivor. No gold stars for guessing who that survivor is going to be kids. der Heide doesn't baulk at showing the claret, but he's not rubbing the audience's face in the gore either. There's some brutal murder scenes going down, the first one is a shocker and the Director manages to spring a surprise there, with der Heide going for realism rather than a Disney style fake approach. If people getting hit over the head with axes and having their throats slit isn't your cup of tea then you may be in the wrong film. The deaths are well spread out through the film with a constant feeling that violence is going to erupt real soon. It's the menace of brutality hanging over Van Diemen like a mist that helps give the movie its atmosphere and creepy feeling.

Van Diemen is about as realistic a film as you are ever likely to get outside a well made mockumentary, Director der Heide pulls that off with a sure hand. All the locations are outside shots and yes the actors went on a forced march through some pretty uninviting bush as the movie unfolded.

I'm simply not going to bother listing the Actors and talking about them individually, everyone delivers a sterling performance that lifts Van Diemen well above the average. Having said that I would also point out its worth while taking note of lead Oscar Redding's Alexander Pearce. The Actor delivers a character study that is likely to have you re-evaluating your thoughts on the notorious cannibal. Redding presents a complex man forced to his fate rather than grabbing it with both hands.

Jethro Woodward delivers a rich score that speaks not only of the time the movie is set in but also of der Heide's stunning visuals. Quite an achievement and worth hunting out for its own merits.

Summary Execution I missed Van Diemen's Land in its limited cinema run mainly due to Aussie Bob wanting to hold over The Disaster Movie for one more week. On the bright side I was there bright and early the moment the movie hit my local DVD store. It wasn't quite what I expected but the stunning visuals won me over to the careful construction of the cinema elements. It might be slow moving but the cinematography is on a grand epic scale that holds your attention during every frame. I'm not entirely sure I can say I enjoyed the movie, but I would definitely have missed an engrossing experience if I hadn't seen der Heide's take on an infamous Aussie legend.

Indie Distributor Madman hit cinemas with Van Diemen's Land Down Under and managed a solid $266k result on a limited run. The DVD release is far wider with most quality outlets stocking the movie; let your fingers do the walking there. Madmen as is their want have put together a pretty good package for consumers so I'm calling value for money.

Full recommendation on Van Diemen's Land, one of the best dramas to hit our screens in 2009, this is must see stuff. How on earth this flick didn't win a few awards is beyond me, oh wait it didn't have certain elements that the wine and cheese set want in their flicks. The movie is slow moving but it also is very involving giving the viewer an engrossing experience that will stay with them. Book passage to Van Diemen's Land, but bring your own provisions.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

Worth taking a bite out of, very solid Aussie drama.