Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

A priest, a confession and a conscience

The film tells the story of the last days of Alexander Pearce
The film tells the story of the last days of Alexander Pearce

By Fiona Murray
BBC News

The tale of an Irish convict, who is often whispered in the same breath as the outlaw Ned Kelly, is to be screened in Northern Ireland.

The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce is the story of the final days of a farm labourer, who escapes from prison and resorts to eating his fellow convicts to survive.

Enniskillen-born actor Ciaran McMenamin plays Pearce as he awaits execution in 1824 and confesses his crimes to Father Phillip Conolly, played by fellow Fermanagh actor Adrian Dunbar.

The crew travelled to one of the world's most remotest places - a Tasmanian rain forest - to shoot the film.

Producer Nial Fulton, also from Enniskillen, said he did not want to make a gruesome, horror story.

Adrian Dunbar plays Father Conolly in the film
Adrian Dunbar plays Father Conolly in the film

"It is not about the gratuitous nature of murder and cannibalism," he said. "It is a story about what drove a 30-year-old petty thief, at worst, to become one of the most notorious figures in Australian history, a character who is often whispered in the same breath as Ned Kelly.

"The real horror isn't what these men did to each other but the sheer brutality of a system in which they felt there was no hope, where they were driven to commit unspeakable acts out of sheer desperation."

The story begins in 1819 when Pearce, from Clones in County Monaghan, is jailed for seven years in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania). His crime is the theft of six pairs of shoes.

Transferred to the notorious Sarah Island prison, which has a regime of fear, he falls in with like-minded convicts.

Eight of them escape across the extreme wilderness of Tasmania and as hunger sets they reach the awful decision to eat one of the group.

Within weeks, only and Pearce and another man are left alive.

When Pearce is captured by British authorities he confesses his crimes but a magistrate refuses to believe him and he is sent back to Sarah Island.

He escapes again and when the authorities catch up with him, he is lying beside the decimated remains of another convict.

Alexander Pearce is played by Ciaran McMenamin
Alexander Pearce is played by Ciaran McMenamin

Adrian Dunbar plays the priest who Pearce meets during his incarceration and to whom Pearce confesses everything.

He said the drama put forward "very interesting moral questions".

"He (Father Connolly) does not come around to forgiving Pearce for what he does but he does come round to understanding that... if you find yourself alone and isolated and you are starving, just want to stay alive, there's no telling what you might do," he said.

Ciaran McMenamin said they really wanted to humanise the story.

"Over the years, this man has been demonised but we felt it was important to show him as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation," he said.

It was the first time all three Fermanagh men had worked together.

"They managed to put a human face to a monster and to make people empathise with this guy which is a remarkable achievement," said Nial.

 Nial Fulton, Ciaran McMenamin and Paul Stewart on location
Nial Fulton, Ciaran McMenamin and Paul Stewart on location

"To pull this off we needed to have authentic accents and I thought we need the two principal characters to sound like they can empathise with each other, that they come from the same part of the world.

"But... I was going to the most remote island in the world and then going to the most remote corner of that island. I thought it would be great to have a couple of lads from Enniskillen in the trenches."

Belfast man Paul Stewart was an artistic director in the film and made the cannibalism scenes look authentic.

Nial explained: "Once you make that decision you are going to kill someone and eat them, I believe, that the taboo is broken, and every time afterwards it doesn't become a big conversation about the ethics or morality - you just do it."

The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday, 23 February 23 at 2100 GMT.

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