Sweet Country is about cruelty in a beautiful land. A bitter country would also be an apt title. Cinematographer and director Warwick Thornton returns from his Camera d’Or winning feature Samson and Delilah with an astounding aboriginal western that hits you in the gut. Hard. The film bridges past and present to create a dialogue about aboriginal stories we need.
Possessing verisimilitude in spades, it’s easy to lose yourself in the historical snap shot. There’s a mix of Australian veterans mixed in with some screen new comers who all who do a wonderful job, in particular the aboriginal newbies, who are the corner stone of this film.
The story is set in 1929. It’s a slow burner with a slightly complicated plot, but easy to immerse yourself in. Opening with just a kettle coming to boil on a campfire, off screen we hear an unknown aboriginal stock man in a heated argument with his boss. It’s one of the uncontextualised flash forwards/backs that Thornton uses masterfully throughout the film. Only later do we realise the dissident aboriginal with the back bone is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris).
The dissatisfied Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) work for the honourable preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Fred is a beacon of a deacon, one of the very few men in this story with the courage of his convictions; treating every man equal regardless of skin colour. One day he gets a knock on the shack he shares with Sam, a new neighbour Harry (Ewan Leslie) beseeches Fred for a hand for some manual labor.
Harry is a prick. The antithesis of Fred, a cruel spiteful man likely suffering from PTSD from war experiences. He manipulates the trio and leaves with Lizzie Sam and their niece to go build a fence. After a violent sexual assault Harry sends them away to go leech more services from fellow neighbour Mick (Thomas Wright). Mick sends his half caste son Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) to work with Harry. Mick isn’t exactly a good man himself and certainly isn’t too paternal towards Philomac. Once at Harry’s property Philomac is given a small beating and chained up like an animal. He escapes, a kerfuffle occurs ending with Harry on the doorstep of Sam’s hut. Violent and shooting wildly Sam is forced to kill Harry, setting of a chain of events culminating in the local sheriff hunting Sam and Lizzie down as they escape into the rugged landscape.
Inspired by true events, this isn’t the typical cat and mouse. There is a budding suspense, accentuated by a low droning, but almost imperceivable hum that permeates the on the run scenes. But over than the foreboding drone there is no real sense of urgency. Instead is a documentation of two separate parties juxtaposed within the outback. One clashing against nature and natives, the other in harmony with the land.
The film can be a little cookie cutter at times, but at others a complicated mix of emotions. A testament to this is the struggle of Philomac, the aforementioned child of Mick. Mick himself is a conflicted creature, at times relatively sympathetic to the aboriginal plight, while also being a domineering bigot. Mick’s imposition to Philomac is to turn his back on his heritage and culture, to settle in for the ‘cushier’ lifestyle of the settler. Philomac meanwhile is simultaneously nurtured and belittled by the few aboriginal stockmen he knows. This sub plot is relatively small within the film yet leaves much to be pondered.
The final act of the film is a bit clunky with the film maker too keen to insert appropriate metaphors and messages in a rush, rather then letting the bulk of the film speak for itself. Softening that is the fact this is a film where the journey is much more engrossing than the destination. Thornton has captured beautifully, the visual smorgasbord of the Australian outback. Within the panoramic landscape is a story just as exquisite and unforgiving as the environment it’s been captured within.
Sweet Country is in Australian cinemas from Thursday 25 January through Transmission Films.