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Van Diemen's Land

Film Two Stars
Van Diemen's Land had a lot of promise. Based on a true story of Alexander Pearce, a man described as Australia's most notorious convict, who in 1822 escaped with seven other convicts from one of the toughest prisons in the world.

It's a great story to take from and sounded like it could make for a great psychological horror and\or thriller, and with it gaining some positive comments I was intrigued. However the film doesn't live up to the expectations and does falter for the seconds half.

Plot.pngVanDiemensLand.jpgThe story follows Alexander Pearce who, with seven other convicts, escaped from the Macquarie Harbour Penal Settlement and tried to cross the harsh landscape of Tasmania. They struggle to fight through the thick wilderness and use up their megre resources very quickly, and it's not long before they are starving and beginning to turn on each other.

TheFilm.pngVan Diemen's Land starts off well with a wonderful looking film, amazing landscapes and washed out colours with an evocotive soundtrack to add atmosphere galore.

The one annoyance I had was a personal one, the over emphasised sounds of someone eating. Of course this is something that we come to understand later on, but I never quite get the need for filmmakers to let us hear people eating, smacking their lips, sucking their food, when we can see what's happening or have it audio described, why the horrible over emphasised sounds?

That aside, because in this film it's there to provoke a reaction and also to dovetail nicely with the ending, the film does open really well and captures your eye and imagination from the opening scene.

We see the convicts being taken to an island where they are meant to cut down the trees as forced labour. There are no guards with them except for the leader of the workforce and a boat that comes packed with food and manned with a few soldiers each day, but then surrounded by the harsh wilderness there's nowhere really for them to escape to.

The characters have plenty of strong banter, both verbally and physically and at one moment it's both hilarious and extremely politically incorrect, but still caused a good few press members to crack up. However the story doesn't stray far from the serious nature as we see the convicts turn against the man tasked with making them work, and they escape.

The drama really begins from this point and the initial joy at being free and heading towards an escape slowly begins to fade as they realise the terrible situation they are in and the dwindling food supplies.

The tension grows between the characters and the it's built visually and slowly, adding a lot to the atmosphere of the film. There are some strong moments here, like the premonition of the first death, and the way that the men stand in silence to almost vote to go ahead with the unspoken plan, and they are presented with such style you could easily think that this wasn't the first feature of a director.

Interestingly the writer/director Jonathan Auf Der Heide already made one short called Hell's Gates which covers the same story and from which the lead actors are taken.

However it's after this first kill that I felt that the film began to falter and rely more on the stylish look, lingering shots, and the artistic gazes of the actors than anything else, for after this point the pacing hurts the character's motivations and the dramatic elements of the story are pushed out from the film.

The pacing seems odd to me, pushing to the side that we only see one character attempt to hunt a creature, and it's a few seconds of an idiotic attempt. There doesn't seem to be any effort of the characters to find any other source of food, so it seems odd that they leap into the idea of cannibalism.

It's also the speed with which the plough through the food. There's no real feeling of time passing and what seems to happen is that they eat one night and the next day, or the one after that, they're looking to kill someone else and eat them. I found that really missed out on an opportunity to build the moral dilemma facing the characters and show just how far they had to go before they were driven to these actions. It feels like we're just repeating the same thing cutting out the elements that made the film strong at the beginning.

There's no denying though that some of the scenes between the characters really do show a good degree of suspicion and tension, that's definitely been captured and portrayed well, and later in the film that feeling does come through even stronger, however I began wondering if there was going to be more to it than what we were seeing.

Come the ending I was disappointed to see that the natural conclusion was exactly what happened, and then the film ended, bringing us the tidy-up of the story with two closing credit frames telling us what happened to the characters and the events after the final scene.

This is a real shame for it's in these words that the more dramatic ending lies, in fact I would say the only dramatic ending. This would have been more interesting to see rather than what we did, because the scene had already been played out a number of times before losing any intended impact.

Overall.pngIt is interesting that this started out as a short film. I really do get that feel when watching it, as the strongest part of the film is the build up to the first killing and afterwards it does feel as though we're relying on the same turn of events.

However, it is a well shot film and the visuals and performances are very good, and that first half is worth watching. It certainly bodes well for more from the talent involved as long as there's a stronger feature length script with a story that can carry through to a good ending.

Filmstalker at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2009
UK IMDB Film Details



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