Published Feb 01, 2001The new Australian drama "In a Savage Land" does quite a good job of portraying the native tribes of Papua New Guinea in convincing, naturalistic detail. The two anthropologists who travel there to study them, Phillip (Martin Donovan) and Evelyn (newcomer Maya Stange) are, however, complete dullards. When they arrive on the island, their guide informs them that when a woman in the tribe is publicly shamed for being promiscuous, she must climb the tallest tree and leap to her death. So when Evelyn later finds that her actions have shamed one of the women for a sexual dalliance, she and Phillip seem to have no idea what she's doing climbing a tree until she unceremoniously hits the ground. The real leap of faith is believing that these two scholars ever received such a lucrative research grant.
There's a lot that's wrong with this film, but you could never take it to task for a lack of ambition. It starts out dealing with sexual politics, both those of the tribe and between proto-feminist Evelyn and her academically esteemed, but condescending husband Phillip; but it also deals with the relative evils of just about every form of cultural imperialism (from missionaries to traders to academics). It even throws in a love triangle and the Pacific invasion in World War II for good measure. If it gave center stage to any one of these issues it probably would have been a better movie - less cluttered anyway.
"In a Savage Land" ends up being undone by its unlikable protagonists. Martin Donovan (much more suited to the cool spaces of a Hal Hartley film) is quite unsympathetic except in a brief scene in which he does his best to defend his occupation when a swarthy trader (Rufus Sewell) charges that researchers are the true exploiters of the natives. Maya Stange has to carry most of the film (she experiences the greatest trauma), and she's supposed to be the perceptive, sensitive one, but she never quite inspires our trust, even after she has so closely bonded with the tribe that she covers herself in mud and shaves her head. By the end of the film, her narration informs us that she's genuinely changed as a result of her experience, but her return to civilization appears to be as effortless as donning a business suit and graciously signing copies of her freshly published book.