Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Natassia Gorey Furber, Sam Neill, Ewan Leslie, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Gibson John, Matt Day
The western has long proven a source of fascination for Australian filmmakers. While seemingly the most American of genres, there are obvious elements of shared experience which attract Australian storytellers to the form. It is a genre of landscape, of wide open spaces, which Australia has in spades. It is also a genre of colonisation, of nation building at the expense of an existing indigenous population, a dark history that Australia and America share. Eight years after earning critical acclaim, and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Camera d’Or, for his debut feature Samson & Delilah, Warwick Thornton has dipped his toe into the western with Sweet Country, bringing an indigenous perspective to the form.
When, in an act of self defence, Aboriginal labourer Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills Harry March (Ewan Leslie), a racist, alcoholic, traumatised veteran of the Western Front who has recently moved onto the neighbouring property, he and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) are forced to go on the run, knowing that there will be little understanding for a black man accused of murdering a white man. Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), a determined lawman, puts together a posse to hunt them down, with Sam’s employer Fred Smith (Sam Neill) joining to ensure that Sam is brought back alive.
While Samson & Delilah was almost genre-less, Sweet Country shows Thornton to be equally adept at working with a genre toolbox while continuing to offer the strong point of view that made his first feature so powerful. Here he offers an historical take on a theme, the marginalisation of indigenous Australians, that he previously explored in the present day. Thornton always insisted that while the story of Samson & Delilah was fictional, everything that happened in it was true, and Sweet Country shares much the same relationship with reality. While Fred Smith treats Sam and his family with some dignity, insisting that “we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord here,” beyond the borders of his property that is not the experience of the Aboriginal characters we encounter. They are subjected to abuse, to physical and sexual assault, and when Sam comes to the defence of his family, it only opens up a new set of problems. We see layer upon layer of injustice.
While structured as a relatively simple pursuit narrative, the film is littered with flashes of memories or premonitions. Sometimes we know what we are seeing, and other times we won’t understand until later. Always of violence, these glimpses add to the sense of foreboding that hangs over the film. As harsh and unflinching as Sweet Country is in depicting its reality, it also exhibits a great deal of restraint. Some of the violence is graphic, but it is never exploitative. Even as Sam fights back against Harry March, the film never fully tips into the realm of the revenge western. Its commitment to reality wont allow for that fantasy as much as the audience might desire its catharsis (there were a number of times where Quentin Tarantino’s version of this story would choose a different path).
The western, more than any other genre, is about space and landscape, and Sweet Country is majestically shot. Thornton, as a trained cinematographer who always shoots his own films, captures stunning red, brown and gold scenery. But the Australian outback doesn’t represent the boundless potential and opportunity that the frontier does in American westerns. The outback is harsher and altogether less forgiving. It is something to be survived and endured rather than tamed. A gifted visual storyteller, Thornton manages to capture the disparity between the white and black experience of the outback. That which is merciless and impenetrable to Fletcher and his men is an ally to Sam and Lizzie. The sparseness of the landscape is magnified by the choice to keep the soundtrack free of music, using only the sounds of the outback to accompany the drama – though we do get a Johnny Cash track over the end credits to confirm Sweet Country’s western credentials.
The performances are strong, with a largely non-professional cast of indigenous actors supplemented with the veteran presences of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. Neill brings a gravitas and decency to Smith, while Brown brings layers to an unrelenting antagonist who could have been two dimensional. But it is Hamilton Morris, whose Best Actor award was one of six AACTAs won by the film, who is particularly striking. While not having as much dialogue as some others, Morris’ largely internal performance captures the weight of oppression and perpetual uncertainty he lives with.
A more accessible film than Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country is no less unrelenting. It can be demoralising in its frank approach, and yet also almost mythic. Having confirmed his place as one of Australia’s most compelling screen voices, here’s hoping Warwick Thornton doesn’t wait another eight years to give us his next film.
Review by Duncan McLean
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