Turn­ing up the eat

Ciaran McMe­namin talks about mak­ing and star­ring in a film about an Ir­ish con­vict can­ni­bal in Tas­ma­nia

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Out Box Of The -

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

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