Warwick Thornton’s much awaited Sweet Country may well be the best Australian film of the year. It is certainly the most timely and necessary. The film is in-competition at the prestigious 74th Venice Film Festival and in the Platform section of the Toronto International Film Festival. To get into the main competition of these two festivals is a victory in itself. Given the lengthy and genuine standing ovation at the premiere screening in Venice, the Italian and foreign audiences clearly understood the world of the film, if not its modern day Australian significance. This film represents our lasting shame and our national pride; it is an exquisitely made film about a complex recent history.
Sweet Country is inspired by true events, a revisionist western, not unlike The Proposition, set sometime after WWI in the Northern Territory. As a western it features cowboys on the hunt for a runaway in the vast, wild unknown frontier country. There are good guys and bad guys, Christians and drunks, thieves and cowards. There are guns and shootouts, sheriffs, saloons and savage ‘natives’. There is also the law, justice and epic landscapes that preside over bitter, deranged men. Like all westerns it has something more to say, beyond the archetypal cracks of a horseback chase scene – history, race, slavery, faith, the law and the dreams of something greater.
Aside from the fine documentary-drama Jandamarra’s War (2011), there are few artistic projects that have engaged with Australia’s 150 year Frontier Wars. A conspiracy of silence? The fear of an uncomfortable audience experience? Not in this case, for the director managed a fine balance between intricately drawn Indigenous characters that the audience cared about and action sequences featuring snotty, fearful and deranged white men. Common perception would have it that the skirmishes out in the back of beyond, for it was terra nullius after all, ended in the 1800s. But as this film makes clear the full-blown conflict was waged well into the middle part of the 20th century where the law and common practice were strange bedfellows.
The film is based on a true story, told to Thornton by writer David Tranter, of an Aboriginal man, Wilaberta Jack, who in the 1920s was arrested and tried for the murder of a white man in Central Australia.
Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) who kills a crazed-alcoholic war veteran white station owner, Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence. Knowing that he is in trouble with the white men, Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) go on the run from the local cop (Bryan Brown). From there the classic western chase unfolds but its polarities are reversed and like the fugitives in Fury Road the audience is on the side of Sam and Lizzie.
From the very first moment while watching closely as a billy boils, we hear the assault of what we later learn is Sam Kelly for not complying with a white man’s orders. From our modern vantage point we know that this is not a case of the fair go and that we are in for an intense experience of having our ethical sensibilities shaken. Sam and Lizzie live with Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a preacher without a church, who believes “we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord.” But this is at odds with the other settlers in the area. Harry March, the new owner of a neighbouring property, comes over looking for help to build fencing and is curious where Fred got his “black stock”, talking about Sam and Lizzie as he wants to “borrow them”.
Despite his misgivings, Fred is cajoled by Harry to “do the Christian thing” and he agrees to let the couple help on Harry’s station. Everyone naively assumes that they will be fed and housed, paid and looked after. But harry abuses Sam with hard work and rapes Lizzie and then sends them packing with a flood of abuse. Some days later Harry “borrows” the young Philomac and Archie from Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) on another neighbouring property for more slave work. Mick, like Harry enjoys a drink and physical abuse of his “black stock”. Young Philomac, Mick’s “half-caste” son is chained up by Harry for the night for no reason. He escapes in the morning. Harry, drunk, armed and enraged by the escape, goes in search of the boy and ends up at Fred’s property where he starts shooting up the house thinking Philomac is hiding there. When he bursts into the house, Sam kills him in self-defence. Fearing the worst, Sam and Lizzie disappear. The local lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) organises a posse to go in search of the fugitives. Fred Smith joins them to make sure that no harm will come to Sam and that he is given lawful treatment. The best scenes, typical of a classic Western, are the chase through the ever-changing wild country and the significant obstacles that it throws up to the searchers. There is more to this of course and the final act is wonderfully composed, patient and full of surprises.
The title Sweet Country has multiple meanings – it is at once an observation of the stunning landscapes that titillates the audience; the promise of financial opportunity that the land offers the colonialists to capture for their own use without any acknowledgement of its ownership; and it is a bittersweet recognition that this country is both dangerous and bewildering and traumatised by a whole system of injustices that is only for the brave to face up to.
The film highlights the Frontier Wars, the settlers’ fear of Indigenous resistance and their complete contempt for the law of the land. It also reminds us of the impossibility of colonial development without Indigenous labour that was tantamount to slavery some 70 years after it was abolished in the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States. The disgusting Harry March, having begged Fred Smith to loan him some of his “blacks” for a couple of days’ work, imploring him that “it’s the Christian thing to do” then proceeds to abuse Sam and Lizzie in the most unchristian way possible. Was Harry March the type of character subsequently mythologised as the true-blue Aussie who seeded the legends of great bushmen, larrikins and settlers that made this country great? Harry knows he is wrong, but along with the other bedraggled vermin of the outback he also knows that he has the power to do as he likes – he is white and he has a rapid firing gun.
It is not surprising that the cinematography here is outstanding, but it is the decision-making with the visual language, the restraint and the revelatory surprises that are most startling. Thornton is a celebrated cinematographer in his own right and here he not only directs, but also lenses the film with his son, Dylan River (Buckskin, 2013). The setting in Central Australia’s MacDonnell Ranges, around the area where Thornton grew up, ensures a connection with the land; an understated confidence in capturing the majestic vistas of the landscapes and taming them in the service of the story. He refrains from imposing the stunning terrain to heighten the epic quality of the narrative and its natural grandeur but it is hard for it not to play a defining role. The variety of the landscape continues to surprise as does Thornton’s efficient use of sound and the soundtrack of the natural environment. This is a masterful production with top level, fully committed performances and a sensitivity to audience expectations and their emotional journeys.
Thornton does this partially through a silent foreshadowing that punctuates the drama and leads to a continuous second-guessing of what will come next and in what order, keeping the western narrative fresh.
Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2009 and justifiably thrust the director into the national spotlight with cinemas in the leafy small l-liberal suburbs screening the film long after it had finished playing elsewhere. There was cut-through where it was least expected. Sweet Country also features the escape by an Indigenous couple from the violence of their domestic environment and their search for something better on the road. Both films explore themes of justice, ethics and white law with the complexity of post-colonial blackfella relations. Where Samson & Delilah was for all of its genuineness rough around the edges and unnecessarily expositional in parts, Sweet Country is highly sophisticated, sparse and powerfully confident and should have even greater cut-through with mainstream audiences. The performances of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are worth the price of admission alone, but it is the understated and proud performances by the largely non-trained Indigenous actors that really provide the film with its heart and symbolic power. Thornton manages to provide each character with sufficient time for a full character narrative with the minimal use of language and an efficient lack of exposition.
This is a film that will inspire audiences with a feeling of righteous fury and national pride. Must see!