Van Diemen’s Land
Released September 24, 2009
Much like the country itself, Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s intriguing piece on Tasmania’s nineteenth century cannibal convict Alexander Pearce is very pretty but it’s also small, and slightly inaccessible.
Like one of those disconcerting low-rent re-enactments they used to do of real-life crimes for Australia’s Most Wanted (but without the dodgy accents and performances), much of what takes place here plays more like the middle chapter in an interesting three-part documentary that you’d usually find on cable.
Considering we’re talking about a thrilling real-life story involving a cannibal – a man who “lost it” in the harsh terrain of Tasmania, and ultimately turned on his own people to survive – you’d think the emphasis might’ve been more on thrills and less on impressive footage of the currents of the Gordon River?
In 1822, eight convicts (including the legendary Alexander Pearce) escaped Macquarie Harbour in a fateful bid for freedom. Their plan failed, and the band of Irish, English and Scottish thieves were immediately thrust into the heart of a harsh and foreboding landscape. And pretty soon, their stomach’s started to rumble…
It’s admirable what Tasmanian filmmaker Auf Der Heide has been able to do with the limited budget and resources on hand. The VCA graduate (whose third year film was also based on Pearce) knows exactly what to shoot, where to shoot, and how to shoot. It’s a very polished production indeed. He has a bright future in this industry.
He also proves he’s got a great eye for casting. Oscar Redding (reprising the role he played in Auf Der Heide’s graduation film) gives a masterful performance as the flesh-eating European, and a very talented cast of new faces backs him up.
It might’ve been wise for Auf Der Heide to take one last pass at the screenplay before beginning production on the film, however, because it definitely tastes undercooked. It would have benefitted from a punchier pace, and more character development. As it stands, you don’t much care who ‘gets it’ next – you just sort of watch the numbers dwindle down.
Nevertheless, Van Diemens Land is well worth the visit.
Mao’s Last Dancer
Released October 1, 2009
Li Cunxin’s bestselling autobiography was placed into some impressive cinematic hands: legendary Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), Shine screenwriter Jan Sardi and producer Jane Scott. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film festival this month and received a standing ovation, but what will local audiences make of this much anticipated adaptation?
Alas, for those who have read the book, Beresford’s film may well fall flat. What was an intricate and moving memoir is now a romanticised biopic: replete with generic characters and mired in midday movie sentimentality. Those unfamiliar with Li’s fate as a child plucked from poverty and moulded into a world-class ballet dancer just need to take a look at the melodramatic trailer to get up to speed.
Fortunately, however, the film does have some saving graces. The dancing, for one, is beautiful – if rather conventionally shot – and Chi Cao as the adult Li is absolutely captivating on stage. The gorgeous choreography from the Sydney Dance Company does much to rescue Mao’s Last Dancer. So too does Bruce Greenwood, never breaking stride as the warm and compassionate director of the Houston Ballet Company, Ben Stevenson. With Chi’s acting as halting as his character’s English, Greenwood fairly shoulders the film, marginally supported by Kyle MacLachlan and a bit of comic relief from Beresford stalwart Aden Young.
Curiously, the film focuses on Li’s brief relationship with his first wife Elizabeth (an out of her depth Amanda Schull), relegating Li’s second wife, Mary (Camilla Vergotis) to a mere footnote. Obviously concessions had to be made for the film’s 117min running time, but the manifest lack of chemistry between Schull and Chi further weighs down the already overwrought defection plotline.
As a dancer, Li longs to fly. And so it is particularly crushing to see such great potential fail to soar to cinematic heights.