in a savage land(2001)
director: bill bennett
maya stange, martin donovan, rufus sewell

. Probably the most remarkable thing about Australian director Bill Bennett’s In a Savage Land are the scenes among the tribes of New Guinea’s Trobriand Islands, which have the bracing immediacy of venerable old black-and-white footage of “savages” just discovered by westerners, combined with the depth and vividness of modern colour moviemaking, making us aware of the westerners, in their tropical whites and pith helmets, uncomfortable with both the heat and the naked flesh all around them.

Martin Donovan and Maya Stange play an anthropologist couple who, on the eve of war, travel to the Trobriand Islands to study the natives and their unusual -- and titillating -- matriarchal culture (an echo of Margaret Mead's fantasy of Samoa). Along with a machiavellian missionary and the inevitable, ignorant colonial administrator, they meet a trader (Rufus Sewell) who regards their “noble” academic work as little better than his crassly lucrative trade in pearls and native carvings. It’s a foregone conclusion that the wife, disgusted with her husband’s careerism and patronizing approach to the natives, will end up in the rude but honest trader’s arms. 

While the plot -- a basic romance in a slowly crumbling Garden of Eden -- is standard enough, the script and the performances are much better than merely competent, and the disintegration of the couple as they confront their tragic incomprehension of the natives and their world is satisfyingly dramatic without the added, looming threat of Japanese invasion. 

Stange in particular is compelling as a woman whose pride and wilfulness are both a source of strength and a tragic flaw, igniting the downfall of herself and her feckless husband. In the end, though, there’s a reunion on a rainy station platform and a tearful goodbye, and the conventions of romantic drama bring us back from a land of savages to a strange update of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, another tragic tale of lost love during a war.