Turning up the eat
Ciaran McMenamin talks about making and starring in a film about an Irish convict cannibal in Tasmania
THE sweat drips down the back of my legs as I melt in the Tasmanian sun. The strongest sun in the world, they reckon — nowhere else on the planet is there less ozone cover than here.
Tasmania, the last bastion before nowhere, south of Australia, next stop Antarctica, that place that is actually ‘‘down under’’ Down Under.
As I stand in a woollen 19th-century costume in the middle of what can only be described as an African plain, sweat filling my shoes, I chew on a snippet of information. The weather forecast for tomorrow predicts snow. This is the third such forecast in as many days and to me says everything about this incredible place.
We’re in Australia shooting The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, the unbelievable story of a Fermanagh man’s journey in Tasmania in 1822.
At this time of year it is completely normal to break out the factor 30 sunscreen one day and your snow shoes the next.
Pearce was arrested and transported to Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) in 1820 for stealing six pairs of shoes. After suffering years of torture in the brutal British penal system, he and seven other convicts escaped from Macquarie Harbour and headed into the wilderness towards a horror none of them could have imagined.
The fugitives spent the next three months in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, murdering and cannibalising each other until eventually only Pearce himself remained. On being recaptured he confessed the lot, but the powersthat-be assumed it a fantastical cover story for the other convicts, who they presumed were still at large.
He was sent back to the same hellhole from where he escaped and was subjected to a routine of torture tenfold to what he suffered before.
Pearce eventually escaped again, this time with another convict, a boy named Cox. Shortly into the escape attempt, on discovering Cox could not swim, Pearce murdered him and butchered him for his meat. At this point — horrified at what he had become — he signalled to a British ship and gave himself up.
In the weeks leading up to his hanging he asked for a priest and colonial chaplain Father Phillip Conolly was dispatched to hear the confession of the cannibal convict.
The transcripts of his confession still exist and it is from these that producer Nial Fulton wrote the script.
We (Nial and I) had a clear agreement that we weren’t making a monster movie, we were telling a human story. I had been chosen to humanise Pearce because he had never been humanised before.
There’s a lot of information on the guy but a lot of it is hearsay. He is the only witness to his own crimes.
The great horror of Pearce’s life is that before any of these specific events happened, the guy was born into a world of s---and starvation. He was born fighting from the start.
The doctor on Pearce’s ship (on the way to the colonies) felt the need to write down ‘‘this guy hasn’t spoken for three months’’. I found that simple thing very useful (as an actor). I read into it that Pearce was a survivor, someone who was used to dealing with hardship and coming out on top.
The majority of our locations are in the stunning central highlands of Tasmania and our base for the duration of the shoot is the Derwent Bridge Hotel. This really is the end of the earth; the landscape is like another character in the drama.
It’s so far from the known world that, ironically, it became a prison for the jailers as well as the poor unfortunates sent there against their will. Convicts and soldiers, lords and ladies, bushrangers and Aborigines were all thrust together in one of history’s strangest and least-discussed melting pots.
Our first night meeting is called, not to discuss the script or schedule but to decide a plan of action if anyone gets bitten by one of the many poisonous snakes in the area. I sat and listened to the local wildlife expert as he listed the creatures to avoid. Brown snakes, copper snakes, jumping ants that bite — the list is endless and I could not help but think how far we were from Fermanagh. The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, M ABC1, Sunday, 8.35pm Horrific tale of escape Duration: 1 hour