Van Diemen’s Land Movie Review

Written by Steve Pattee

DVD released by High Fliers Films


Wasn't the devil in you when you brought me here? – Pearce

Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
Written by Jonathan auf der Heide and Oscar Redding
2009, 100 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
DVD released on June 1st, 2010

Oscar Redding as Alexander Pearce
Arthur Angel as Robert Greenhill
Paul Ashcroft as Matthew Travers
Mark Leonard Winter as Alexander Dalton
Torquil Neilson as John Mathers
Greg Stone as William Kennerly
John Francis Howard as Little Brown


In 1822, Alexander Pearce and seven other prisoners decided to make a break from the penal colony Macquarie Harbor and find their freedom in the wilds of Tazmania (which was then known as Van Diemen’s Land). Unfortunately, the plan went to shit almost the moment it was hatched, and the eight men were left to their own devices in the middle of an uncharted wilderness. It wasn’t long before they ran out of food and were forced to turn to the obvious choice of sustenance…each other. Based on a true story from the confessions of Alexander Pearce, Van Diemen’s Land follows the fates of the eight convicts who escaped from their captors.

Van Diemen’s Land is a bleak movie. Of course there is nothing fun about cannibalism, but what Land manages to do is not so much be a movie about the horrors of eating human flesh — even if it’s out of desperation — but rather concentrate on the paranoia and the hopelessness of the situation the escaped criminals are in. That’s commendable, because I would imagine that is what the situation was truly about: hopelessness. Land does not focus on the struggle of whether or not to consume your fellow man, as that would be the easy way out, instead it goes deeper into the situation the men are in, and the continual loss of trust.

Land is a quiet movie, as there’s not a terrible amount of action since the majority of the time is spent following the men through the woods in an attempt to make it to civilization. Because of that, the film is a slow mover, but is compelling to watch nonetheless because of a variety of different factors. The first of which is the acting. As the eight little Indians start dwindling down to the eventual one, the paranoia of each character oozes off the screen. They make you feel their quandary, and you want no part of it, but are satisfied as a viewer to sit in the comfort of your home and see what happens next. The entire time I was watching, I could only think of what horrors they might have seen in the penal camp to be willing to put themselves through the hell of Van Diemen’s Land. That says a lot for the performances.

Aiding the actors tremendously was Ellery Ryan’s beautiful cinematography. Ryan had a good starting point with the land itself, but the picture is virtually void of color, adding to the film's depressing topic. Instead of lush and welcoming, the forest the men trek through becomes dark and uninviting, as if it knows the fate that awaits them. The men themselves have an almost grayish tone to them, making them appear to be already dead. The stark picture speaks volumes where the dialogue doesn’t, never letting you forget the situation the group is in.

In addition, Jethro Woodward’s score is both haunting and elegant. It complements Ryan’s cinematography beautifully, and captures the mood of the men’s predicament perfectly. Like the movie, the music is subtle and unintrusive, but still plays a major part in the film. It doesn't cheat and 'tell' you when to be tense or scared, instead it becomes as important to the film as the cinematography, and Land would have suffered with a lesser score.

For a film that has very little gore, which is odd all things considered, Land still manages to be cringe worthy in more-than-a-few moments. This is mainly due to the sound effects and relying on the viewer’s imagination. This decision is fitting for the movie, as in this type of film, the grue would be distracting, and, on some level, it’s even more disconcerting because your mind is filling in the blanks for something that really happened (if you are to believe Pearce’s story). I found myself cringing more seeing nothing than I would if it were shown. Perhaps that’s because I do believe this is how it went down.

Van Diemen’s Land is not a happy film. Even the last bit of text at the end of the film telling of the fate of Alexander Pearce, the only man to survive the escape, brings a final shudder. Yet it’s one that should be watched because it works on so many levels, as it’s a film that manages to be both ugly and beautiful all at once. Definitely give it a go, but don’t expect a feel good ending.

Video, Audio and Special Features:

Video, audio and special features will not be graded as this is a screener for the UK release.


Movie: 4 Stars
Video: n/a
Audio: n/a
Features: n/a
Overall: 4 Stars

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Steve Pattee
US Editor, Admin
He's the puppet master. You don't see him, but he pulls the strings that gets things done. He's the silent partner. He's black ops. If you notice his presence, it's the last thing you'll notice — because now you're dead. He's the shadow you thought you saw in that dark alleyway. You can have a conversation with him, and when you turn around to offer him a cup of coffee, he's already gone.
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