This review contains some spoilers.
The most apt way of describing Sweet Country (directed by Warwick Thornton) is a strange cross between To Kill a Mockingbird and Rabbit Proof Fence, with a healthy amount of chase scenes and tension thrown in for good measure. With a host of well-known Australasian actors (including Sam Neill and Bryan Brown), and introducing Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber, Sweet Country is a film about justice, violence, and fear in a brutal and harsh world. It premiers on the 25th of January, and is definitely worth seeing.
The story is set in the Northern Territory Outback, 1929, and follows an unfortunate series of events surrounding the Aboriginal stockman Sam (Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Gorey-Furber). After shooting the volatile and dangerous white station owner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), the pair go on the run, and are pursued by their former employer and friend Fred Smith (Neill), local landowner Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), and Sergeant Fletcher (Brown). The film explores the violence, racism, brutality, and hardships experienced by all during this time, but especially by the indigenous Australians in the inter-war period.
It is refreshing to see “dark and gritty realism” applied to a film that doesn’t shy away from dealing with heavy issues (and doesn’t just use violence and sex to gain attention). The coarse language, the sexual scenes, and the violence are handled in a very effective manner, neither shying away from the details whilst simultaneously not becoming overly gratuitous. All the events are played out well, and feel natural to draw the audience into the world on the screen – the sign of good writing. It was so effective that members of the audience were gasping and some even called out “no!” when certain events happened on screen. The writing is very strong, especially considering that it was not a dialogue-heavy film.
The actors all deliver stellar performances. Every single one manages to convey the feelings and sentiments of their characters clearly, even with the minimal dialogue. From the violent and damaged March through to the benevolent Smith, to the stoic panic of Sam to the traumatised Lizzie, from the fanatical rage of Fletcher to the cantankerous Kennedy, everyone managed to draw the audience in effectively. What made the characters engaging was the fact that they were all more than cheap stereotypes – March although blatantly racist was also clearly suffering from PTSD after his time on the Western Front; Sam, although quite reserved and stoic, was prone to emotional outbursts when put under pressure; Lizzie, although she experienced brutal trauma, managed to actively participate in their adventures rather than become a silent, crying figure.
All the characters have clear and understandable motivations, even if those are alien to modern Melbournian sensitivities.
The political message is simultaneously subtle and very much present throughout the film. Although there is only one real monologue that deals with racial relations in the film (when an older Aboriginal stockman chastises a mixed Aboriginal boy about stealing and becoming like the “whitefella”), the racism throughout the film is just presented as fact – the white men in the village simply say things because that’s how it is (or was). With the possible exception of Smith (who could be seen in some ways as the modern audience seeing the events – and even then, his benevolence is due to his intense religious faith), every one of the characters
Perhaps the view of the film can be summed up in the final scene, with Smith walking angrily off muttering “what hope does this country have?”, while lightning cracks the sky open in the distance, and the half Aboriginal boy drops a pocket watch into the stream.
Sweet country indeed.
Sweet Country is in cinemas from 25 January 2018.