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Movie Review: Van Diemen’s Land at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2009

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The events that take place within the surprisingly short 104-minute runtime of Van Diemen's Land might have been depicted as more visually shocking and disgusting if in the hands of someone like Eli Roth or Rob Zombie. But first-time feature-length director Jonathan Auf Der Heide (who also co-writes) handles everything here in a strangely delicate fashion, a way that makes such things as murder and cannibalism seem very matter-of-fact. It's a film of true, raw power that, although certainly not to everyone's tastes, can be revelled by those who enjoy their cinema to be about more than explosions and car chases.

Set in the early 19th century, Van Diemen's Land tells the true story of a group of convicts who after escaping their captors in Tasmania, head out into the vast, treacherous and unknown wilderness that surrounded where they were being held. Managing only so long before the harsh conditions and lack of food take hold, the group are forced to turn on each other for survival.

Van Diemen's Land could very well be described as a pessimistic look at aspects of the human condition, shining light on the ugliest things that human beings would do not to live and be comfortable in their conditions, but to merely survive. And it's never a pretty or easy watch; it contains scenes that – as far as the principle of the act which is occurring goes – are downright stomach-churning. But somehow it all makes sense, even if in normal, everyday life it would cause jaws to drop.

What adds to the weight of the movie, as is almost always the case, is the fact that it's based on a true story. There really were eight convicts who escaped captivity in 1822, having to brave the harsh weather and surroundings in pursuit of freedom and, ultimately, survival. In contrast to that, there's also a certain fairytale like quality to the movie, almost as if it's all a dream and these men are still back in the hands of their captors.

This dream-like feel of the film is, in part, down to the gorgeous cinematography by Ellery Ryan. The vast landscapes surrounding the escapees offset the up-close-and-personal, in the-thick-of-it dilemmas that they face. Many of the scenes are set apart by views of the the surrounding forests and streams, which give a nice contrast to the many scenes which take place with the group huddled together around a fire, discussing what their next move is going to be and how they're going to survive another day and night in the harsh conditions.

Every single one of the eight escapees that we follow are superbly played by their respective actors, very crucially convincing you that they're actually in this horrific situation, truly going through these horrible ordeals. Most of the eight actors have been in the business less than a decade, and their performances belie their relative inexperience. The characters (or real people, I should say) that they portray are not particularly nice, nonetheless we root for them as fellow human beings. It's never explained why they were held captives (it does, however, give a text pre-cursor that they're repeat offenders) but imagine the worst crime you can, and you probably still wouldn't wish this horrendous ordeal on them. Auf Der Heide thankfully never treats this is a "they get what they deserve" kind of film, but rather concentrates on what's most interesting and most important: What a man will do to survive.

For a first-time director, Van Diemen's Land is impressive work, indeed. It is an accomplished and mature movie, one that is simultaneously horrific and yet strangely beautiful. Emoting the works of Werner Herzog, the film is compelling, raw, and undeniably powerful, holding attention from start to finish, even throughout some of it's extensive scenes of silence. A few issues with repetitiveness aside, Van Diemen's Land is essential viewing for fans of cinema that's a bit more less mainstream than what we usually get.

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About Ross Miller

  • Sri

    Great Review Thanks, first saw the eerie trailer on http://www.firstshowing.net – looked great. So stumbled upon your blog, trying to find the UK General Release date for “Vandiemens Land”. Do any of you guys know when it will be on general release ij the UK?

  • andrew

    Alexander Pearce and his accomplices were not hardened criminals. Pearce was sentenced for the theft of 6 pairs of shoes. most were petty thieves that were sent to the end of the world. Pearce was the only person, until Nov 2008, to ever complete this journey. Harsh times call for harsh measures………

  • Chonka

    Check out a song called A tale thy wont believe by Weddings Parties Anything, great song describes the event well