Australia is often hesitant to acknowledge its unfortunate historical treatment of its indigenous population. One of the premier names shedding light on the hithertofore voiceless is director Warwick Thornton (We Don’t Need a Map), and in Sweet Country he offers audiences an unapologetic examination of life in the Northern Territory of the 1920s. Sweet Country never promises to be easy, and on that count it does not let its audience down.
Ranch hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris, in his feature debut) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) are forced to become fugitives after acting in self-defence. Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown, Australia Day) gathers a posse, including Sam’s boss Fred Smith (Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), to bring Sam to the frontier justice that seems inevitable for an indigenous man of the era.
Sweet Country is the sort of film that a white actor would likely be uncomfortable participating in; as PTSD sufferer Harry March, Ewen Leslie (TV’s Top of the Lake) is thoroughly loathsome in a role that others might have tried to ring sympathy from. Most of the white characters treat the indigenous as if they were property or a pest, depending on their specific relationships, but the script, care of writers Steven McGregor (The Warriors) and David Tranter, is not without nuance. Brown brings a dignity to a lawman who is not entirely corrupt, and Neill offers an example of a religious man to whom morality and faith work in tandem.
There is variation amongst the indigenous characters: compromised worker Archie (Gibson John) and young “half-caste” Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevor Doolan), both of whose dialogue is entirely subtitled, offer troubling and complex counterpoints to the wounded innocence embodied by Sam.
Sweet Country’s approach to systemic racism is somewhat different to the American treatment that you might receive from something like Hidden Figures. At no point does Sweet Country invite the audience to meditate on the concept that it used to be like this, and aren’t we all grateful that racism doesn’t exist anymore? Sweet Country is matter-of-fact, offers no comfort, and never suggests that the past is a different country. There is a deep sense of continuity ingrained into the film and the nation itself, but you can never look away.
Historically, Thornton has shot all of his own films; he remains director of photography on Sweet Country, and it is vibrant for it. Not for Thornton the sameness of the Australian outback, Sweet Country offers sequences of beautiful and brutal landscapes populated by people barely subsisting. The play of light across the plains is breathtaking, and one is nearly blinded by the salt plains. If the countryside is dangerous but inviting, the thankless consistency of the miserable township is suffocating. Nick Myers (Australia Day) edits with a sense of point and counterpoint, not always linearly, with stark contrasts between shots. That the movie can offer a sense of crushing inevitability while retaining the ability to surprise is commendable, even if the surprises are almost never pleasant.
Sweet Country is a handsomely made film about ugliness. Thornton challenges audiences to accept the truth that the film represents, without any platitudes or easy escape routes. Though it has a shiny “legitimacy” conferred upon it by veterans Neill and Brown, this is a film that speaks for itself. Sweet Country is a landmark work of Australian cinema, even if it lacks commerciality: what it does offer is the diamond hardness of certainty. Few films are as sincere as this one.
Sweet Country opened in Australian cinemas on January 25, 2017.
Directed by: Warwick Thornton.
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Natassia Gorey Furber, Gibson John, Tremayne Doolan and Trevor Doolan.