Beautifully shot with hauntingly vivid imagery in an arid backdrop that echoes the bleakness and hopelessness of the tale unfolding within, Sweet Country is a bold, shocking film determined to invoke horror and empathy among its viewers. After the magnificent debut film Samson and Delilah in 2009, Australian director Warwick Thornton returns with yet another scintillating narrative of the Aboriginal Australians in this stark, subtly incendiary version of the Western. The film has been taking the festival circuit by storm, collecting the Special Jury Prize at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, the Platform Prize at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and the Best Feature Film at the 2017 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Actor Hamilton Morris plays Sam Kelly, a farmhand at the cattle station run by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a devout Christian preacher in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory in 1929. When an embittered, angry war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) comes to the preacher for help to renovate his cattle yards, Sam, along with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) and niece, accompany him to provide him with the aid he requested. The relationship between Harry and Sam quickly sours as the new arrival to the town reveals his drunken, unhinged side.
Quite early in the film, it is established that the decent behaviour bestowed upon the colonised station workers by Fred makes him a local outlier, his neighbour Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) and Harry do not share this sentiment, with the latter’s exploitation of his “servants” extending to chaining up children and rape (a scene shot with great restraint by methodically blacking the screen out, leaving the audience in darkness with the harrowing sounds of the act). While on a mad pursuit of the lively child labourer Philomac (jointly played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) who escaped his chains overnight, Harry attacks Sam, meeting a violent end himself. The rest of the film unfolds as the town sets out to solve the murder of Harry March and imprison Sam and Lizzie, who are left with no alternative but to flee.
“Fraught with tension”
One man’s necessary act of self-defence brings forth the colonialists’ abhorrent and toxic racist dogma and is weaved through the classic film chase. The film is neatly paced, with several sudden flashbacks and flash-forwards, and unexpected changes in focus on characters making it fraught with tension. The intensification of the narrative does not feel gimmicky, on the contrary, it captivates the audience to the last word despite straying far away from a climactic, action-filled showdown.
“Sweet Country has a lot of heart”
In a film with such emphasis and care dedicated to detail, even the choice of surname “Kelly” for the runaways is no random choice. In one scene, the white settlers celebrate and cheer as a silent picture screening of “The True History of the Kelly Gang”, led by the iconic white bushranger Ned Kelly. That the white viewers cheer on the antics of Ned Kelly, while ostracising and seeking out the blood of his wronged Aboriginal namesake is an ironic situation that the film barely emphasises on and yet is conveyed to the audience by means of evocative storytelling. Morris’ portrayal of the fugitive is restrained and stern, thus sparing Sam from being the cliché “grand” hero. Sweet Country has a lot of heart, but leaves its viewers with the hollowness that the Anglo-Saxon takeover left the world in. The erasure of the cultural identity of the Aboriginals and their heartbroken proclamation of their homeland being overdeveloped, sullied and dried up is in stark contrast to the colonisers’ view of it as a vast landscape of unspoiled territory, a “sweet country”, ripe for a hostile takeover.
Image and media courtesy of Bunya Productions and Sweet Country Films