In a Savage Land (1999)

Rufus Sewell, Martin Donovan, Maya Stange, Max Cullen,
Two married anthropologists go to an island off of Papua New Guinea for field research.
  • 6.1 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Jennifer Cluff, Writer:
  • Bill Bennett, Director:
  • Producer:

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7 / 10

Unfortunate

I do regret that for the last few years I haven't lived in Melbourne. Then I might have got to meet the beautiful and talented Maya Stange. She's been treading the boards in the former JeffLand and it would have been a treat to have seen her at work on the stage.

She stars in In A Savage Land. Stange hails from Western Australia and this is her first lead role in a feature film.. But enough of that.

This unfortunate film was made by Australia's Bill Bennet (Kiss or Kill, Spider and Rose, Two If By Sea.)

Bill Bennet had an excellent leading lady in Maya Stange and an equally effective leading man in the fairly ubiquitous Englishman Rufus Sewell, but is hampered by an under worked script for which Bennet and his wife Jennifer, rather ill advisedly also take credit.

In A Savage Land tells the story of a pair of anthropologists (Maya Stange and Martin Donovan) who travel to the Trobriand islands near the then New Guinea. They're fascinated by the reported avid and animated sexual habits the natives are reported to exhibit.

Now this should start ringing alarm bells for mature cinema goers. The topic smacks of immaturity and shallowness, not necessarily, but we've seen cheap, easy sex, or the promise of it, ruin plenty of films before, most recently Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Should Have Been Shut.

Anyway off they go from England to check out the mating habits of the natives, having got married to get the job, establishing along the way some conflict between husband and wife regarding the position of an uppity, bright, modern woman who dares to have her own opinions.

Once they get to the tropics there's some business regarding who's supposed to be having sex with who in the village. Someone becomes offended and a native commits suicide. The white wife goes native and takes up with the local white trader (Rufus Sewell).

A cliched Australian colonial administrator (Max Cullen) and a similarly pat local evangelist (John Howard) make their pompous entries and exits and we find out almost nothing about the natives, or even the anthropologists even when the situation gets muddy and dangerous, and in spite of some spectacular scenery.

The film was reportedly filmed in Niu Guinea under trying circumstances but there seem to be at least a dozen fades to a black screen, a sure sign of a poorly organised effort. This film that could well have been called In A Slight Script.

It's difficult to become involved in a story with as many loose plot ends as this one, even one that stars the very promising Maya Stange.

9 / 10

An epic beyond any other

Bill Bennet's really come of age as a film maker with this masterful epic. Top notch performances from Sewell and Donovan are shadowed by the stunning Strange.

Maya Strange may be unknown to viewers outside Australia, but through small roles in such films as 'Head On' and "McLeod's Daughters" we down in Oz have watched and waited to see her in a role which does justice to her talent. At only 24, she not only carries her own alongside Donovan and Sewell - but also carries the film itself, appearing in almost every scene.

The script by Bennet and his wife Jennifer is layered and complex. The photography, by first time DOP Danny Ruhlmann, is exquisite.

10 / 10

"A thinking person's film"

*** for some weird reason every time I publish this review IMDb's edit program changes the lead actress' name to Maya Strange, despite her being present on IMDb as her real name, so I've had to spell out and space her name***

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 when my mother studied local languages during a teaching contract in TPNG . 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.

7 / 10

A beautiful looking movie with fine perfomances.

Visually this is a stunning movie showing the New Guinea landscape in all its glory. I loved the golden look of many scenes. The performances were very good, with Maya Stange a wonderful surprise as the heroine - although her sudden conversion to native and back again was strange to say the least. Bill Bennett has again demonstrated that he is one of Australia's best new directors.

1 / 10

Visually stunning, but ultimately slow and disappointing.

If you have an interest in the scenery of the Pacific islands, then by all means see this film - there are some wonderful wide-screen images of the islands and their people to be had. Hats off to the crew (the director and camera crew in particular) who worked in tough, often muddy, conditions.

But if you are after an engaging and entertaining story involving characters you can identify with or against, then you're in for a let down. Put simply, "In A Savage Land" drags.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a film with a relaxed pace - not every movie has to be chop-chop, bang-bang. But this film just takes too long to say what it has to say. Even at the Brisbane premiere (the director/co-writer's home town), with an apparently friendly audience, I could hear people fidgeting during some scenes. I don't think it was just the serious subject matter to blame. Many scenes just move too slowly for no apparent reason. Modern audiences don't respond to this.

There is also the problem of the somewhat shallow depictions of the central characters. We never really seem to get to know the central couple, and this was meant to be (I assume) a character piece. Maya Stange's changes in attitude and appearance are just too much to believe, and it was difficult to fathom her motivations. Her husband's views on how to conduct his research and his marriage go past blinkered or even prejudiced, they appear just plain foolish.

The islander characters are even more closed off to the audience, with the unscrupulous traders providing the only real (if limited) insight into their islander ways.

The most obvious place to lay the blame for why the film doesn't work is the script. It seems underdeveloped, though I believe there was much work done in the edit suite during post-production, so it's hard to know what the original script looked like.

All the actors seem to give credible performances, and moments where the performances seem less than impressive seem to be the fault of the script, not the actors. But it's so hard to say, looking in from the outside.

All in all a disappointing film from a very talented writer/director. "In A Savage Land" had a short run in Australian theatres, which is all the more upsetting when you realise it was one of the more expensive Australian films made for several years (around ten million dollars according to the director).