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July 2010

Van Diemen's Land

cast: Oscar Redding, Arthur Angel, Mark Leonard Winter, and Paul Ashcroft

director: Jonathan auf der Heide

100 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 16:9
High Fliers DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Van Diemen's Land

Van Diemen's Land - much like Michael James Rowland's The Last Confession Of Alexander Pearce (2008), and Jonathan auf der Heide's own short film, Hell's Gates (2008) - is based upon the real-life story of the Irish convict Alexander Pearce. Transported to Tasmania for the heinous crime of having stolen six pairs of shoes, Pearce wound up at the isolated penal colony on Sarah Island where he was beaten and starved into attempting an escape with a group of other inmates.

However, lacking weapons, rudimentary supplies, or a boat with which to escape the island, the members of the group soon turned on each other. Months later, Alexander Pearce stumbled out of the wilderness and confessed to the murder and cannibalisation of his fellow inmates. He was not believed until a second successful escape saw him kill and butcher one of his companions despite having pockets full of food. Pearce's story, to this day, remains a haunting reminder of the barbarism of human nature and of a penal system that can turn a petty thief into a monster.

Much like Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Van Diemen's Land is a film in dialogue with Joseph Conrad's famous novella Heart Of Darkness (1899). Much like Nicholas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (2009), it is a beautifully photographed meditation upon the dark side of the human condition and what savagery humanity is capable of when it is freed from the bonds of civilisation. However, just like Valhalla Rising, Van Diemen's Land makes two key mistakes in its reaction to Conrad. Mistakes that transform Van Diemen's Land from a potential masterpiece to a vacuously pretty exercise in middle-brow posturing.

The first problem lies in a basic misunderstanding of the source material. The power of Heart Of Darkness lies not in the nature of what Kurtz becomes in the jungle, but rather in his fall from a position of grace. At the beginning of the novella, Conrad establishes Kurtz as an example of the supposedly civilised values that Europeans are exporting to the rest of the world with their colonial campaigns. Kurtz is not only a genius and a profoundly good man; he is a moral paragon in that he stands for the entire enterprise of colonialism itself.

Of course, as we travel up-river, we discover that Kurtz has collapsed into a state of bestial savagery and rapacious greed that outstrips even the most racist and self-serving accounts of life on the Dark Continent. Kurtz is not merely a brutal man; he is a man who is far more brutal and insane than any of the so-called 'uncivilised' Africans that we encounter in the novella. The 'heart of darkness' from which the story gets its title is not only the interior of unmapped Africa but also the moral vacuum at the centre of the colonial project. A moral vacuum unearthed by the revelation that Kurtz is a monster.

Herzog and Coppola both understood this dynamic. For example, at the beginning of Aguirre, the character is shown to be a civilised man who wears the courtly clothing of the Spanish nobility. It is only as the film presses forward that his true nature asserts itself. The same is true of Apocalypse Now where the insanity and savagery of Colonel Kurtz stands in marked contrast to the behaviour of the local Cambodians and the political rhetoric of the American politicians and officers who mock the Viet Cong for their failure to partake in such courtly civilised activities as surfing. Colonel Kurtz and Aguirre, much like Conrad's Kurtz, are paragons in that they stand for the hypocrisy and greed of the societies they come from.

Conversely, the protagonists of both Valhalla Rising and Van Diemen's Land are outsiders from the get go. They are criminals who have been exiled from civilisation in chains precisely because of their refusal to live within the moral boundaries of the societies that produced them. Because they are outcasts they cannot be paragons... Because they are not paragons, they cannot fall from grace... Because they cannot fall from grace, they cannot serve as tools with which to critique the societies that produced them... Because they cannot be used as critical tools, they provide us no insights into the human condition or society. From an intellectual point of view, these characters are inert; their descents into savagery prove nothing and have no power.

The second problem lies in the lack of depth displayed by Van Diemen's Land. Rowland's hour-long film The Last Confession Of Alexander Pearce covers much of the same territory as Van Diemen's Land, but Rowland seems to realise that Pearce's criminality means that his descent into savagery cannot speak for itself in the way that Kurtz's does. As a result, Rowland's film injects social and psychological context into Pearce's story by considering the effects both of the group dynamics and of the penal system as a whole.

Picking apart the dynamics governing the group of escaped prisoners shows how minor irritations and social transgressions can be inflated into unbearable crimes against the group that serve to justify murdering and eating the transgressor. Illness and injury also come to be seen as factors justifying murder and, towards the end; even falling asleep is seen as justification enough for eating someone. Rowland's film shows us human consciences being broken by an inhospitable land. It shows us the moral compromises that we make in order to survive and how minute ethical realignments can soon snowball into outright barbarism. As an analysis of the psychology of evil, Rowland's film rivals even Nicolas Klotz's wonderful Heartbeat Detector (2007). Van Diemen's Land contains none of this psychological analysis or insight.

Towards the end of Rowland's film, a priest is asked how he can minister to a man as monstrous as Pearce. The priest, a fellow Irishman, points out that Pearce was born a man of free will into a country plagued by famines and mercilessly exploited by English absentee landlords. This made him a thief. As a thief he was transported to Tasmania where he was starved, beaten, frozen and worked like a slave. This made him a monster. Van Diemen's Land contains none of this social analysis or insight.

Much like Valhalla Rising, Van Diemen's Land is a film that is far more concerned with looking profound than actually being profound. Watching the film you will notice the extended silences, beautiful cinematography and enigmatic dialogue that Terrence Mallick used so effectively in films like The New World (2005), and The Thin Red Line (1998), but you will also be struck by the lack of weight behind these technical tropes. Indeed, Mallick's use of these cinematic techniques is astonishingly effective because they effectively give the audience some space in which to think about what they have seen. The New World, in particular, alternates between scenes filled with densely complex ideas and moments of beautiful silence in which the audience can 'unpack' what it is that they have seen.

The problem with films like Valhalla Rising and Van Diemen's Land is that they lack those moments of intense intellectual complexity: both films are retreads of a novella that is over a century old and whose ideas have now passed into the public consciousness. Such ideas are so familiar to us that we do not need time in which to unpack them. This means that instead of giving us breathing room, Valhalla Rising and Van Diemen's Land's moments of beautiful silence serve only to give us enough time to reflect upon the lack of fresh ideas and insights in what it is we are watching.

As a result, Van Diemen's Land is not merely a pretentious film; it is a film that is effectively devaluing a set of techniques which, in the hands of halfway competent directors can still be incredibly effective. My greatest fear is that someone will rent Van Diemen's Land, see through its pseudo-intellectual posturing and then go and watch The New World and leap to the conclusion that Mallick's film is as cavernously empty as auf der Heid's.



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