Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - JAMES JEN­NINGS


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.

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