OUT 25 JANUARY RATED MA15+ / 113 MINS
DIRECTOR Warwick Thornton CAST Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-furber, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Gibson John, Matt Day, Thomas M. Wright
PLOT The Northern Territory Outback, 1929. Aboriginal stockman Sam (Harris) and his wife Lizzie (Gorey-furber) are sent by their boss Fred Smith (Neill) to assist landowner Harry March (Leslie). When Sam kills March in self-defence, he and Lizzie go on the run, pursued by a small posse led by the steely Sergeant Fletcher (Brown).
SWEET COUNTRY OPENS with an unblinking close-up of a billy on the boil. A handful of white sugar is poured into a froth of black tea, the mix soon bubbling rapidly to the top. Off camera, a tense scuffle is heard; the racial epithet “black bastard” barked out with aggressive contempt. It’s a striking marriage of image and sound in a film resplendent with such stark moments, and a bold statement of intent: this harsh Country you’re entering is an unrelenting, primal melting pot, and even if it’s sometimes safely out of view, extreme violence has the potential to erupt at any given second.
Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton’s second feature film after Samson & Delilah — based on true stories told to co-screenwriter David Tranter’s grandfather — is timely in the extreme: although set in 1920s Australia, its blunt, painfully honest depiction of troubled race relations and themes of assimilation, loss of culture and an unjust legal system could just as easily be ripped from today’s headlines. Crucially, Thornton gives a voice to the silenced and those written out of the history books in Sweet Country, excavating the sins of the past that, whether acknowledged or not, continue to have an indelible imprint our national identity.
As important as its themes may be, it would all be for nought if Thornton’s Outback western failed to entertain on a cinematic level. And entertain it does: Sweet Country not only has a lot to say, but it functions as a tense, taut and highly effective chase thriller that plays out across dazzling, desolate Australian landscapes. It’s no surprise the film has already collected a swag of accolades and standing ovations here and abroad.
The cast features a stellar array of Indigenous non-actors, none more important than the central duo of Sam Harris and Natassia Gorey-furber: as stockman Sam and his wife Lizzie, the pair exude a quiet dignity and unwavering loyalty to each other, despite the injustices they face together after their compassionate ‘man of God’ boss Fred (Neill) — a rarity in the film due to his belief in equality for Aboriginal people — fatefully agrees to send them to assist unhinged war veteran neighbour Harry March (Leslie).
Events involving a young, impish Indigenous station-hand named Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) leads to March’s demise at the end of Sam’s rifle, resulting in he and Lizzie going on the lam in the Outback — a place they know intimately, but one that presents as daunting and dangerous to the duo’s pursuers: March’s racist, self-righteous neighbour — and Philomac’s abusive father figure — Mick Kennedy (Wright); the stone-hearted Sergeant Fletcher (Brown), who’s obsessed with bringing the fugitives in and Fred, along for the ride to ensure justice isn’t substituted for brutal revenge.
It’s Sam and Lizzie’s desperate retreat into the wild where Thornton, a seasoned cinematographer who also acts as the film’s DOP, allows his painterly eye and cinematic instincts to fully shine. The Australian Outback has played a key role in films previously, but never quite like this: Thornton instinctively knows how to capture its varied aspects, presenting the land as a grand, beautiful tightrope walk between life and death. There’s also a sense of deep connection between the film’s Indigenous cast and the land they inhabit that can’t be faked: Thornton’s decision to cast those local to the area adding a layer of soulfulness to the film that highlights the subtle beauty to be found within the vast empty spaces.
Another clear pointer that Thornton is in total control of his craft is his ability to evoke all manner of heightened emotions from the viewer without the aid of music: Sweet Country is all natural sounds and ambient noise, never relying on an orchestral swell to hammer you over the head with a cue to feel something. Instead, it’s the assured directing and across the board great performances that provide the tenterhooks for audiences to hang from. The spartan soundscape is thoroughly required: as the creeping dread mounts and Sweet Country funnels towards its harrowing conclusion, there’s only room for stunned, awed silence.
VERDICT Warwick Thornton confidently stakes his claim as one of the country’s finest filmmakers with a thrilling modern masterpiece that shines a much-needed light on Australia’s troubled history — and present.