Jonathan auf der Heide’s gritty, gristly drama Van Diemen’s Land follows the travails of a group of escaped convicts in the remotest area of Australia in 1822. With its majestic but grim location photography and brooding, mystic voice-over (our narrator is prone to mystic utterances like ‘I am blood’), this is somewhat akin to one of Herzog’s tales of wilderness survival, or its opposite.
Initially, it is hard to get to know the characters - eight mostly bearded and unwashed ruffians in prison garb - but we’re helped by the fact that the cast of characters is steadily dwindling throughout as they are forced to resort to cannibalism. With no recognisable star faces, and a unified acting approach (gruff and sweary), the filmmakers rely on physiognomy and dialect to distinguish the characters, which partially works. Some sympathy is created (mainly for the characters who tell the best jokes), so that who is next for the pot does becomes a matter of at least mild viewer interest.
With such subject matter the prospects of a happy ending are slight, but the whole tone of the film has prepared us for that. In fact, one of the film’s greatest strengths, its brooding, relentless plod forwards, is also potentially a weakness: from the darkly jangling music to the darkly overhanging arboreal environment, there’s little opportunity for tonal variation - except in some truly black humour, provided by the traumatised characters rather than by filmmaking wit.
Ellery Ryan’s cinematography, with every lambent shot speaking of the hard physical effort it must have taken to capture these scenes, is the film’s strongest point, striking a balance between the impressionist wash of light through branches, on rushing water, through smoke, and the rough tactile qualities of dirty skin and unwashed hair, mud and bark and stone. It all has an impressive ‘you are here’ quality. The dialogue is sometimes less sure-footed, with anachronistic-sounding expressions like ‘OK’ and ‘no fucking way’ breaking through some generally convincing regional dialects and harsh profanity.
Besides being a persistent visual feast, in its dour way, the movie scores in its sensitive handling of the unpleasant business of cannibalism. Neither squeamishly coy nor gloatingly visceral, the treatment of most of the characters’ eventual fates manages to show enough to appear quite frank, while making it seem as if we’re catching most of the more gory details by accident. An arm is placed in a sack, and it feels like we weren’t supposed to see. The violence is certainly intense, and quick except when it goes wrong. Realism doesn’t become an excuse for splatter excess.
In the end, the escape attempt doesn’t seem to have had much point, and it’s not absolutely certain that the film does, in narrative terms at least. But in its evocation of a bleak, hostile environment in which even the meanest cannot eke out an existence, it packs a bloody punch.