Almost a year ago now I was in Tassie canoeing up the Gordon River.
Anybody who has spent time in that remote south-western corner of the Island will know what an incredibly remote, frigid, and hostile landscape it is. It rains, on average, three days from five, and even in the middle of summer temperatures can suddenly plummet as the Roaring Forties come crashing in after circumnavigating half the globe.
It’s rugged, incredibly so. And the foremost impression that I took away with me, after our 10 days of slogging it through hail, rising tides and bitter Arctic winds, was that this was a place fundamentally alien to everything which we call human. The ancient forest – the towering myrtle, Huon pine, and sassafras – is as moved by the fate of individuals beneath its leafy crown as one might imagine Zeus to be, sitting aloft Mount Olympus, gazing with the impartiality of eternity upon the capricious struggles of Achilles, Hector, Priam and all the rest. As things come and go, live and die, the forest barely blinks an eyelid.
Which is why, having experienced Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon firsthand, I was so keen to see Van Diemen’s Land. And, I am happy to say, I was in no way disappointed. This is a masterful movie, and deserves to be heralded as the most important event in Australian film since probably The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith or Mad Max.
There’s a lot to celebrate: the jaw-dropping cinematography, the incredible performances by half of Melbourne’s finest actors (Redding, Stone, Wright et al), the singular focus of the story with its tight-lens approach to character and dramatic writing, the psychological richness and depth of the characters and the landscape etc etc. It’s also an very intriguing re-telling of what has long been a stock-in-trade story to illustrate the horrors of the Australian colonial experience: a bunch of poor, down-on-their-luck convicts escape from Sarah Island – purportedly the worst prison in the world at that time, hence the fond moniker ‘Hell’s Gates’ – thinking they can trek overland to civilisation, and end up one by one cannibalising one another until, at the last, only one remains: Alexander Pearce. His very name is synonymous with a certain Hobbesian brand of Australian colonialism which sees the convicts as men gone wild on a bitter shore, in other words, having reverted to a state of nature. Marcus Clarke, of course, famously based his monstrous Gabbett on Pearce. And a great many others have found literary mileage in his story.
If you were to think of Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and blend it with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line you might get an idea of how this film looks and where it draws its intellectual strength from. It is, for me, without doubt the film of the year.
What a marvellous piece of hungry silence.