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In a Savage Land (1999)


Soon after getting married, and just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Dr Phillip Spence (Martin Donovan) and his former student Evelyn (Maya Stange) set out for Papua New Guinea to study the culture of the Trobriand Islanders. The two anthropologists intend to further the work others have done on the sexuality and social organisation of the matrilineal society. Tensions quickly emerge between them and the few other Westerners in the area. Their relationship worsens after Evelyn unwittingly transgresses several cultural taboos; Phillip is concerned that her behaviour is negatively affecting his work by changing their relationship with the locals.

Evelyn pays Mick (Rufus Sewell), a Western pearl trader, to take her to a village of headhunters in the muddy rainforests of the Papua New Guinea mainland so she can get out of Phillip’s way and prove herself with fieldwork of her own. The attraction grows between Mick and Evelyn but she is determined to stay on alone despite the harsh living conditions and the aggression her new cohabitants show towards her. Mick arrives earlier than planned to fetch her because Phillip is dying from dysentery back in the Trobriand Islands. After his death she adopts the mourning habits of the village women by living in a cage. Mick watches over her and, when she returns to her old self, their relationship develops as Japanese soldiers move into the area.

Curator’s notes

This very ambitious period film was marketed as an epic love story between Evelyn and Mick. Told from Evelyn’s point of view, it is also a portrait of a smart, independent, idealistic young woman born before her time and faced with very challenging circumstances because of her harsh environment and the sexist attitudes of most of the men around her. Evelyn’s misadventures are set in a very exotic locale, allowing the film to also explore racism, colonialism and voyeurism.

Director Bill Bennett’s interest in the Trobriand Islands was sparked when he found photographs taken there by his war photographer father. As an adult his interest grew the more he read. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s work on the unusual sexual mores of the locals was particularly influential.

The film’s production budget was about $10 million, making it one of the most expensive Australian films ever made at that time. Shooting on location in the undeveloped Trobriand Islands and using hundreds of locals as extras was a brave decision and the early onset of the wet season added to the production’s challenges, but the resultant authenticity and visual beauty adds greatly to the film’s appeal.

Before making In a Savage Land Bennett was particularly known for the way he fused drama and documentary (see, for example, A Street to Die, 1985). Maya Stange does a terrific job in her demanding first major feature role alongside some very experienced Australian actors and the high-profile international actors Martin Donovan and Rufus Sewell.

In A Savage Land was released in Australian cinemas on 21 October 1999. It was nominated for seven AFI Awards: Best Director (Bennett), Actress (Stange), Cinematography (Danny Ruhlmann), Costume Design (Edie Kurzer) and Production Design (Nicholas McCallum); it won awards for Best Original Music (David Bridie) and Best Sound (Toivo Lember, Gethin Creagh, Peter Smith, Wayne Pashley). Bridie also received an ARIA Award for his score.