Blood on The Island
With The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, director Michael James Rowland follows up the success he found with his debut Lucky Miles.
There's something about the Australian bush that inspires horrific tales about serial killers and monsters hidden in the largely uninhabitable lands. While some of these are entirely fictional, others are based on a modicum of truth - Dying Breed for example was inspired by the story of an escaped convict who turns cannibal in the Tasmanian wilderness. While Dying Breed distorts reality by suggesting that the cannibals are still residing somewhere out there, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce looks at the story behind the real man, Alexander Pearce, who was the sole survivor of one of few escapes from Sarah Island - the most notorious convict settlement in Australia.
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce follows the true story of a group of escapees who, upon escaping, resort to cannibalism when their meagre supplies run out. Alexander was the only survivor who was returned to Sarah Island, although the authorities didn't believe his confession of cannibalism. He escaped again with another convict but was caught literally red handed and sentenced to death after killing and cannibalising his new companion.
Directed by Michael James Rowland (Lucky Miles), this made for television docu-drama has become an international success, garnering a nomination for The Best Single Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards. One of the problems that Rowland came up against in telling the story was breaking down the brutal image of Pearce in order to understand the man himself. "My choice was to go back to the original sources. I ended up using the ‘Cuthbertson' confession as the script and let Pearce speak it for himself. I played this narrative out in the cultural context of the day. A dramatic form seemed the strongest, most direct way to present the known facts inside 59 minutes to the audience. Just let Pearce speak for himself and let him inhabit a world of cause and effect."
“Coming onto a project like this is akin to accepting a ticket to a mystery destination. The process itself is transformative.”
In doing so, Rowland has presented Pearce as being a man whose actions were a matter of circumstance rather than pre-meditated brutality. The portrayal, undertaken by Irish actor Ciarán McMenamin, is of a complicated man, who is dealing with his own troubling actions as he recounts them to his priest. "After all the brouhaha, there is something simple and profound about watching Ciarán McMenamin give voice to Pearce's words and watching this doomed group of men pass through awe-inspiring landscapes to their fates. Coming onto a project like this is akin to accepting a ticket to a mystery destination. The process itself is transformative."
The show's success in Ireland comes as no surprise, as Pearce's story is just as well known in his native country as it is in Australia. According to Rowland, it was time for Pearce's story to be told without the tabloid dramatics it has become famous for. "It was so convenient for the English to have an Irish cannibal they could point to. Fleet Street relished painting Pearce as subhuman. Consciously or unconsciously it became another part of England's justification for their behaviour in Ireland. These grand narratives, once accepted, take a long time to shake off. As evidenced in Dying Breed, continuing the myth of Pearce as some kind of monster."
While the violence in The Last Confessions of Alexander Pearce is sometimes confronting, it was never Rowland's intention to shoot a horror. "I'm not a fan of violence but it's hard to tell this story and not go there, each death being a plot point. The perennial question it all kicks up is: what would we do if we found ourselves in the same circumstance? I think it's a question worth asking. Pearce himself was keen to press this point at his defence."
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce is out now to rent and buy on DVD.