Warwick Thornton (director)
09 March 2018 (released)
07 March 2018
The sweep of Sweet Country from dusty outback huts, through vast desert landscapes, to ramshackle one-horse towns, is majestic. It’s maybe a little easy to say it has the breadth of a Sergio Leone western but director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton also has Leone’s keen eye for faces; the twitching, grimy and sweaty features of the desperate and cowardly.
Whereas however Leone relied on Morricone, Thornton has eschewed music completely. It’s a deliberate approach that gives this film a calloused edge, nothing to fall back on or provide any comfort. There’s no stark voids though as the pauses are compelling, actually providing the film with some of its momentum.
Set in 1929 in the Outback, Alice Springs the film opens the trial of Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) after which the viewer is then flipped back to the beginning. A traumatised World War I veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) asks a neighbour Preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) if he can use some of his aboriginal workers to help him. Smith, a fair and kindly man, agrees and his stockman Sam (Hamilton Morris), wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) go to see March. It doesn’t work out with Sam, and he leaves with his family. Unbeknownst to Sam, March in a methodical chiaroscuro sequence takes what he sees as his rights.
Kennedy goes elsewhere for his workers, finding them he chains the boy up. Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) escapes to Smith’s property. With only Sam and his family there, a drunken Kennedy demands that the boy is returned. Ever more frustrated Kennedy starts shooting, leaving Sam no option but to defend himself. Sam well aware of what the consequences could be takes Lizzie into the outback.
A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out in pursuit. Outwitted by Sam the posse is confused and humiliated. The tensions between the men grow so that at the edge of a vast, white desert only Fletcher is left to continue the pursuit into the baking delirium, from which he barely comes out alive.
On learning that Lizzie is pregnant Sam decides to turn himself in and is put on trial for murder in the town, overseen by a dustily fresh-faced Judge Taylor (Matt Day).
There is a dreadful beauty about the Outback; its unforgiving desert and terrain, with cool oases are a stunning backdrop for what is a deceptively simple story. Writers David Trantor and Steven McGregor through plain diction and dialogue - the dogged persistence of the Judge when questioning Lizzie for example – skilfully intertwine the complex issues of race, identity and morals.
Not just the clashes between Fletcher and Smith’s values regarding justice and race but between the indigenous Australians. When an old timer Archie says to the younger Philomac this isn’t my country, Philomac, possibly two generations younger, is well aware that it is, and he needs to make it work for him. There’s Sam’s reaction to Lizzie’s pregnancy, then compounded with the open humiliation of the trial and the almost total hostility of the town. Through it all he maintains his dignity and a depth of humanity that he would have been forgiven for forgoing.
The experienced cast is uniformly excellent, the violence fleeting, bloody and shocking. Sweet Country is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking tour de force.