A cannibalistic morsel of Australian convict history, “Van Diemen’s Land” is a meaty meal only partly let down by its first course. Shooting primarily in mainland Victoria’s dense bushland — doubling for the titular island (now known as Tasmania) — debuting Oz helmer Jonathan auf der Heide makes Herzogian use of compelling Antipodean landscapes. With hefty Euro distribution already in place, the pic will cruise the fest circuit, and classy presentation should also encourage a healthy cult ancillary afterlife.
Based on a real incident, “Van Diemen’s Land” is set in 1822 on colonial Australia’s southern penal settlement. Eight convicts make a break for it while on a wood-chopping expedition; on the lam with little food, they quickly find their self-elected leader, sailor Robert Greenhill (Arthur Angel), lacks the required navigation skills to lead them to freedom.
Ill-equipped to protect themselves against frequent downpours and occasional snow, and unskilled in catching local fauna or harvesting the flora, they inescapably turn to cannabalism for survival.
Despite early efforts to establish the characters with regional accents and distinctive traits, the muddied faces and beards initially make it hard to distinguish individuals. But as the number of protags diminishes, personalities develop more sinew and the tension becomes more substantial.
The performances are undernourished, though the erratically employed Gaelic voiceover by feisty convict Alexander Pearce (co-scripter Oscar Redding) delivers a much needed extra layer of foreboding.
Helmer succeeds in making the unsettled wilderness — presented in grimly muted colors — a daunting character in itself. And when the bloodlust begins, his visual restraint thankfully avoids any slide into Grand Guignol.
Tech credits are impressive overall, but their impact is undermined — in an apparent nod to Jim Jarmusch’s use of Neil Young in “Dead Man” — by the soundtrack’s heavy reliance on incongruous electric guitars. At the screening caught, the sound was excessively amplified.