Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood
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… a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.
The impact on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population by the arrival of the British was genocidal. Whether this was part of the intention is still a matter of fierce debate of course. What is certain is that Van Diemen’s land in the late 18th century was one hellish place.
Director Jennifer Kent (who made the acclaimed horror pic The Babadook) doesn’t spare us the raw details. In fact, she somewhat overeggs it to an extent that some will find it wearisome as well as repugnant. Still, the film is clearly a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.
At the centre of the story is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a feisty young Irish lass with a voice as sweet as a nightingale, who is eking out an existence with her husband and their young child. This is a penal colony whose rough inhabitants are pinned down by the brutal regime of the English soldiers. As an Irish woman, Clare feels the old enmity and resentment of the English and the feelings of corrupt garrison commander Hawkins (Sam Claflin) is clearly mutual. The most oppressed of all are the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people who are rounded up for a bounty or coerced into being trackers to navigate for the whites when they enter the wilderness interior.
Having established the harshness of the world, the film’s drama kicks off when Hawkins tries to exert his ‘rights’ to take/rape Clare. This is a scene that will numb some audiences. After that, Clare turns into an exterminating angel and the rest of the film is the working through of her revenge.
As noted, Jennifer Kent feels the necessity to show us how arbitrary and cruel this land would have been, and to stoke our vicarious desire for Clare’s actions. Franciosi (briefly in Game of Thrones) gives a fine performance and she brings inner strength to her pivotal role. Late in the film, she teams up through necessity with escaped Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) – who has seen his tribe annihilated. This is one of the few elements that comes off contrived, and potentially problematic coming from a non-Aboriginal filmmaker.
The rest of the cast all throw themselves into the historical mayhem with good turns from Damon Herriman as the bullying and bullied subaltern soldier. The revelation though is Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Me Before You) as the irredeemably evil Hawkins. He is more well known for his romantic roles but here he relishes the opportunity to show what a range he truly has an actor. His cruelty is what gives the film much of its explosive force.