2018 Australian Film Focus: Sweet Country

January 5, 2018
Australia's ugly history isn't as distant as we like to pretend in Warwick Thornton's meat pie Western.

It might look like the 1870s at first glance, but Sweet Country, the upcoming and already much-lauded film by Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, We Don’t Need a Map) is set around the South Australian/Northern Territroy borderlands in 1929 – after World War I, before World War II, and almost three decades after Federation. It’s a time when Australia thought it was a unified country, but in Thornton’s film it is nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a land divided by geography, by culture, by race, and by morality.

The main drama of the film is set in motion when an Indigenous station hand, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) shoots white settler Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self defence. Knowing he can expect death at either the hands of the judicial system or a lynch mob, he takes to the bush with his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), pursued by a posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).

There is one man along for the chase who does not have Sam’s death or incarceration in mind: homesteader Fred Smith, a lay preacher and man of peace. While other white settlers view the local Indigenous population as slave stock at best, Smith has extended the hand of friendship to the Aboriginal population – including the fugitive Sam.

“Yeah, he’s humane,” says veteran actor Sam Neill, who plays Smith. “And he recognises his Aboriginal neighbours and people who work with him as human beings, which is not common, not common then, in a country where Aboriginal people were flora and fauna until 1967.

“Most of the other characters are either fucked up or conflicted,” he reflects.

The Indigenous characters are not the only victims of imperialism and colonialism – everyone is subject to the titanic forces of history and empire. That even includes nominal villain March, himself a veteran of the Great War now mired in alcoholism and struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, in the film’s inciting incident he wields his army-issue Lee-Enfield rifle with fixed bayonet against the reluctant Sam, who is forced to gun him down.

That makes even March, the film’s most odious main character, a figure to be pitied more than hated. “He’s damaged goods,” Neill agrees.  “He’s been in the trenches. We all know, many of us know, have a little bit of an idea of how horrifying the trenches must’ve been in the first war, you can only have an inkling of an idea, but I think we also tend to forget how much my parent’s generation suffered too. My father fought through the war, and he seemed entirely normal to me, but he was probably, I think, any man who came back from the war was damaged to an extent, and we tend to overlook that.”

In contextualising its action not just against the time and place of its occurrence, Sweet Country becomes something more than a mere period piece; it’s a film that argues for and presents a greater, deeper understanding of not only our past, but the present moment that past has led us to.

Sweet Country is released on January 25, 2018. Read our review here.

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