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Two anthropologists married to each other go to an island off of Papua New Guinea for field research in pre-World War II. Eventually the war breaks out and many lives are disrupted and complicated. Written by
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*** please note the name of the actress in this film is Maya S T A N G E. I'm afraid IMDb's spell check keeps changing the surname to "Strange" no matter how many times I confirm the spelling, so I've had to spell it out letter by letter with spaces between.
The title of this review is drawn from an Urbancinefile interview with the director Bill Bennett: "I don't know if "In a Savage Land" is mainstream it's a thinking person's film ... look at Dr Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, or The Piano they're all thinking people's films." I think that quote sums this film up very well.
I was surprised that this film did poorly during it's Australian release. As Michael Roche noted ("Exploiting The Exotic - A Cinematic Journey Into Darkness", Metro Magazine, 8-2-2000, No 121/122, pp 125 - 128): "it looks destined to be remembered as a critical and commercial flop ... attract(ing) poor reviews before vanishing from Australian cinemas only three weeks after its release".
Some people have argued this was due to poor marketing and that could be the case, because it would have been a tricky film to market. "Thinking Person's films" often are. Others have targeted it's script (Greg King's review calling the film "plodding, lack(ing) any real sense of passion and emotional depth").
For whatever reason, the film certainly seems to have vanished from public awareness. When checking IMDb today I was amazed to see how few reviews remain here to encourage others to seek the film out. I only write reviews here when I really have something to say. Time to add this film to my very short review list!
I found "In a Savage Land" quite extraordinary.
Let's take the location first.
The director apparently found photos as a child, taken in the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea by relatives in the Australian Army during WW2. I understand his fascination, and desire to engage with the culture he saw in those images. I spent time there as a child because my mother was an anthropologist. So the film resonated on several levels.
Life was on the cusp of change when I was there, just before Independence. I remember the missionaries had had more success by then (than the pre WW2 period depicted in the film) ... grass skirts had been replaced by Western garments, for example. So it was quite magical to see local tribal society depicted more traditionally. Cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann's work was just stunning.
Having been there meant I knew how much hard work must have gone on behind the scenes (later confirmed by Michael Roche) to make the film in that remote and extremely isolated location.
So back to what makes it a "thinking person's film". There has been some criticism of the script, and especially the love story. It's not perfect but I didn't find it plodding and I found it full of passion.
I can certainly confirm European anthropologists and missionaries did swan in with the kind of stilted and pompous arrogance depicted - often studying sex as shown here - and that some came out the other end of their experience vastly changed. Perhaps not quite as changed as this story depicts, despite the fact the film is supposed to be a "true story". But my God, what a role for young actor Maya S t a n g e, who was deservedly nominated for the AFI's Best Actress award for this film.
Greg King writes that "In her first major film appearance, S t a n g e delivers a solid performance in a quite complex and emotionally demanding role, and she carries the film". He's not exaggerating the "complex and emotionally demanding" bit. I remember S t a n g e saying in an interview on Urbancinefile: "I knew this would be confronting and testing. I expected I would lose the plot at some point and I was a bit disappointed when I didn't ... Playing a role that is emotionally demanding can put you into an irrational head space in yourself, making it difficult to operate with the technical demands of filmmaking while keeping emotionally on track ... As an actress, you live a thousand lives and you learn to experience things you wouldn't otherwise. It's always a life changing experience and this is an extreme case".
I was certainly convinced by her acting and the story being told. There has also been criticism that the director allowed a slightly happier ending to be tacked on after testing the film on an American audience. I hope some day to see the original ending but am glad I saw the "happy ending" version in the cinema, because I was involved enough by the end of the film to need it.
I've kept an eye out for the team that made "In a Savage Land" including Maya S t a n g e and I regret that they've done so little since this film. The director has finally made another feature film (in 2010 ... again set on an island, the man must be a masochist) but his wife (who co-wrote "In a Savage Land" and of whom I have been a fan since 1973) and even Maya S t a n g e (since her AFI Best Supporting Actress nomination for "Garage Days" in 2002) have done little. I sincerely hope I'll hear about something they are each working on soon, because otherwise the waste of talent is criminal.
Final word: if you are a "thinking person" and have the chance to see this film, do. I think you'll enjoy it. If you can't get hold of the film, there are some short videos on YouTube that will give you a feel for it.
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