SWEET COUNTRY. Starring: Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber, and Ewen Leslie. Also, Tremayne Doolan and Matt Day. Directed by Warwick Thornton. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong Violence).113 min.
This Australian drama is set in 1929 in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, and tells the story of an Aboriginal farmhand who kills a white man in self-defence, and goes on the run from a posse group, pursuing him to hunt him down. The film is inspired by true events. The film won the Special Jury Prize Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. The Indigenous Director of the movie (Warwick Thornton ) won the prestigious Camera d’Or award for Best First Feature Film, “Samson and Delilah”, at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. That film was about an ill-fated, teenage romance set in and around Alice Springs.
This film is set like a Western in isolated territory around Alice Springs again. There is no church, or courthouse, only a few shops, a hotel, and a Main Street. An honest and well-meaning preacher, Fred Smith, unlike others around him, believes all people are equal “in the sight of the Lord.” Fred (Sam Neill), lives with Sam Kelly, his stockman (Hamilton Morris), Kelly’s wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), and Lizzie’s niece. Fred has no Church to preach in, but being Christian in outreach, he lends Sam and Lizzie for two days to an alcoholic, stressed war-veteran, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), who asks for assistance as the station-owner of a neighbouring property.
Harry March rapes Kelly’s wife, and denigrates Kelly. March later confronts Kelly with a rifle, fires into his house, and Kelly shoots March in self-defence. Convinced there will be no justice, Sam and Lizzie run away, and are chased by a group, led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who pursues them obsessively. Learning that his wife is now with March’s child, and wanting help for her, Sam eventually gives himself up. A trial is held, Sam is acquitted, and told he can go free. As Sam and Fred drive away from town, justice comes to be delivered to Sam in a white-man’s way.
This is a dark film, making frequent use of tightly edited flashbacks and long-shots, that offer strong, moving comment on injustice, exploitation, and racism in an era of Australian history where white settlers made their fortunes through abuse of indigenous labour, and black people worked for free on land that was stolen from them by white people. The dialogue in the movie is sparse, the tension escalates dramatically as the film progresses, and its violence is brutal. The Indigenous acting by nonprofessionals is outstanding; Sam Neill and Bryan Brown deliver excellent performances; and Morris’s acting as Sam Kelly is especially moving.
The movie has tough things to say about black humiliation and white racism, and depicts terrible injustice in a country that was hostile to Aborigines. It is full of blatant racism that hits hard, and Thornton has directed a movie with enormous historical significance. Questions of truth and justice are constantly kept in front of the viewer, as the plot relentlessly unfolds. Through exploring the country’s violent history in the way it does, the movie suggests strongly that racism is still prevalent in a “sweet country”, called Australia. A desperate, almost inaudible, plea heard as the film concludes, comes from Fred Smith’s departing words: “What chance has this country got?”
The film shows striking images of the outback, and the movie’s cinematography (by Warwick Thornton) is exceptional. Scenes of the Australian outback capture the isolation and harshness of the land brilliantly. Sam and Lizzie flee into the farthest reaches of the Australian outback, not yet subject to white-man’s rule, and the camera conveys the film’s messages through haunting imagery by integrating Australia’s barren scenery deep inside its heart.
This is a movie that doesn’t think twice about delivering tough punches. It is a powerful film of Indigenous hardship and injustice at a time in Australian history that never should be allowed to repeat itself again. Like other exceptional Australian movies, such as the drama, “Wake in Fright” (1971), the movie argues persuasively that Australians can live a much better life in the future by knowing and understanding the deep pain and tragedy of its past.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting Transmission Films
Released January 25th., 2018