By Devdutt Nawalkar
Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
Actors: Oscar Redding
“Hunger is a strange silence”
Some years ago, I read ‘The Fatal Shore’, Robert Hughes’ seminal work on the establishment of the penal colonies that came to be called Australia. It was a remarkable piece of literature, one gathered from the historical record, and tracing the journey of convicts and other undesirables from the zealous assizes and overflowing prisons of the Old Country to the newly discovered land in the nether regions of the world. The inhuman conditions of transport, first encounters with the aboriginal natives, the terms set for ones freedom, folk tales and legends – ‘The Fatal Shore’ gave a succinct picture of the evolution of the fiercely independent, competitive, and often misunderstood, Australian character.
Van Diemen’s Land, written and directed by Jonathan auf der Heide, is a movie centered around one such legend. Based in the Tasmanian (previously known as Van Diemen’s Land, named after some bureacrat) wilderness of 1822, it tells the story of a group of convicts that fled their shackles in search of the fabled and fertile eight districts. Their initial levity, however, is gravely tested as they come to grips with the harsh, unchartered, and unforgiving landscape. It rains, it snows, the wind is biting cold, the rivers are angry torrents -indeed, there is a memorable line before one such boiling rapid: “That river there is one for an angry man.” Left to their devices with no hope in sight, they succumb to a paradoxical form of cabin fever amidst the vast, green expanse, letting mistrust take seed and bloom. They try to live off the land initially but food is almost mockingly sparse. Trapped between all-pervading hunger and fast-receding hope, they turn to cannibalism, weeding out the weak and the hesitant.
Van Diemen’s Land is told from the perspective of one Alexander Pearce, played by Oscar Redding. Pearce was eventually caught and hanged sometime in the 1800s, however his accounts of cannibalism were dismissed as so many tall tales by a culture still governed by Victorian proprieties. The movie itself doesn’t allow us to get well-acquainted with the characters; instead choosing them as props against a backdrop of the dormant inhumanity that lurks within us all. The no-name cast handles the parts well though, admittedly, there isn’t much to be done here.
Pearce soliloquies, in Irish, throughout the movie. His monologue is the sole link we have to the ravaged minds of these miserables. The narration is laden with insight into the mind’s darkest recesses, and frustration with an indifferent God. On an occasion when the resident priest among the lot (Mathers) expresses his resentment on being asked to carry the “crumbs”, Pearce muses, “Mathers has a pure heart still, but Dalton’s flesh rots his teeth.” In a way, the movie refrains from judging these men; it merely posits that stretched far enough, there is space for the unmentionable within us all. However, in the absence of all social mores and structures, when we’re reduced to our basest, do our ideas of good and evil even hold credence?
Jonathan auf der Heide shows a huge Terrence Malick and Herzog influence here. The wide screen, lingering and contemplative shots of the forest canopy, the dependence on monologue as a tool for examining conscience, the sounds of nature, etc – he has obviously studied Malick’s work, especially The Thin Red Line. Van Diemen’s Land is stark, repressive but never anything other than beautiful to look at. auf der Heide doesn’t take the movie’s grim subject matter as a warrant for exploitation; there are few, if any, explicit images of cannibalism. To an extent, it deprives the movie of a certain visceral punch. But I can gel with the director’s mindset.
Van Diemen’s Land isn’t a movie for everybody. It’s bleak, sports little cheer, has no standout performances to speak of, and doesn’t have a road to travel or a resolution to meet. As a meditation on the darker aspects of humanity, however, it is a worthwhile investment.