An Unflinching Eye on the Past

There’s a particular type of film that turns up at film festivals that tends to infuriate me, because the only thing I come out of them saying is ‘Beautiful, but depressing’.

Van Diemen’s Land is beautiful, and depressing. But it is not one of those films.

It is also slow, and grim, and relentless, and horrifying, and desolate, and wholly remarkable.

It’s loosely based on a true story – perhaps more accurate to say it’s extrapolated from a real event. Eight prisoners escape from the British penal colony into the Australian wilds with little or no food, and many weeks later, one prisoner is left, and he – how shall I put it – is not starving.

In some ways, I almost don’t want to review it – the less one knows about the film, the greater the impact. But it is not a film I would want to recommend to people without some warning as to its content. This is a film about men in desperate straits who turn to cannibalism to survive, and it is not the warm-and-fuzzy, noble depredation of, say, Alive.

The only film I can remember having such an intense physical reaction to is Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s response to the Columbine shootings. Like that film, Van Diemen’s Land wound me so tight that I found myself still shaking – almost in tears – hours later. This is not the instant visceral reaction of the sort that Lars Von Trier clearly hopes to provoke with Antichrist (a film I have no intention of seeing at the EIFF. Or ever). Quite the opposite – Van Diemen’s Land unfolds so slowly that even as the grim nature of the story becomes clear, the full impact is delayed. (I have a tendency, particularly in ‘serious’ films, to always have a part of my brain already analysising the film and my reaction to it, composing the review as the film progresses. It’s a bad habit, because it means that I can get stuck on first impressions. Here, despite the ever-present ‘so, how does it make you feel?’, the impact of the film was not lessened. I suspect that analytic part of my brain failed to notice the little part that was just going ‘oh. my. god.’ over and over.)

Crucial to the film’s success – what prevents from becoming merely horrific – is the time it takes to ease into the story, coupled to the entirely too believable characterisation. The convicts are fully realised, human. They tell dirty jokes and squabble, as any group of nineteenth century English-, Irish- and Scotsmen might be expected to – they are not ciphers. By the time the story reaches its turning point, you are fully invested in what happens to them – which, of course, makes each murder all the worse. In a (perhaps unintentional) parallel of horror conventions, the film subverts your expectations of who will survive – again, the less you know going into the film, the better.

“Hunger is a strange silence”

There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this film. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of film I end up resenting – the slow pace, the sustained dissonant notes on the soundtrack, the enigmatic pronouncements on the nature of good and evil. And the extreme nature of the content means that it could easily have slipped into being either absurd or outright unpleasant. Yet the film is – remarkable.

It’s the first feature film by Australian director Jonathon Auf Der Heide – who, judging from his appearance at the screening, looks to be about fifteen – but it has the assurance of a much more experienced filmmaker. The slow pace is measured, not tedious, and the sounds are subtle (they walk through a forest devoid of animal and bird life, the silence only lifting in the last few moments). The characters are well-drawn, the images striking but not simply for their own sake – the landscape is it’s own beauty, filmed subtly in muted colurs. Those muted colours draw some of the sting from the violence, and he knows when to cut away. He also knows when not to cut away, and does not shy away from the brutality of his story – he has an unflinching eye, but it is not daring you to look, merely showing what there is to see.

Van Diemen’s Land is as striking and powerful a film as I’ve seen in Edinburgh: difficult, undoubtedly, but utterly compelling.

Van Diemen’s Land website

One thought on “An Unflinching Eye on the Past”

  1. Sounds like a very good movie, thank you for providing such an evocative and thoughtful review that I do not need to go and see it!

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