Directed by Warwick Thornton.
Featuring Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown and Sam Neill
“…the scenery of the central Australian outback is not only overwhelmingly beautiful, it is scintillating…”
Prior to the ironic use of Johnny Cash’s song ‘Peace in the Valley’ on the closing credits, the Christian preacher Fred Smith (played by Sam Neill) disdainfully mumbles something about there not being much hope for this country (i.e. Australia). ‘This’ country, although naively described as ‘sweet’ by the Sergeant (played by Bryan Brown), is more suitably depicted as a harsh, untamed and directionless land by the film’s auteur, Warwick Thornton (director AND director of photography). Thornton’s connection with this period of Australian history (the 1920s) must not be underestimated considering his Aboriginal background, but I think it is more pertinent to praise his conjuring here of the contemporary mood in regards to racism, injustice and social upheaval in Australia. While the film may have been made in 2016, the past year has seen a plethora of bewildering news stories in this country relating to Aboriginal issues – the persistence of out-of-touch politicians, driven by arrogant business-people, to enforce a cashless welfare card system on Aboriginal communities, the failure of the Prime Minister to listen or act upon the outcomes of an Aboriginal summit at Uluru, as well as his arrogance towards the growing support for changing the date of Australia Day due to its shameful ‘celebration’ of Aboriginal suffering.
Indeed, Thornton’s film does not explicitly deal with any of these current issues, but as a viewer and someone who regularly experiences the separation of white and Aboriginal cultures, I guess I could not escape these connections myself. I assume Thornton was very mindful of this too, but as a film set in the 1920s outback, his aim is very much to communicate a realism of the time. In a nutshell, Sweet Country is all about confronting a history of inherent racism, violence, cruelty and outback justice that only served to worsen the situation of Aboriginal malaise. As I have recently watched The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith from 1978, I could not help but draw parallels to that classic – a story of enforced subordination on the Australian frontier that leads to violent and tragic consequences. Sweet Country offers a more delicate portrayal of its story, and the characters are much more sympathetic than the raw and brutal treatment afforded in Jimmie Blacksmith. Thornton certainly manages some abrupt violence into the mix but it is never gratuitous and it is never out of place either. The narrative is structured very cleverly and clearly, and the scenery of the central Australian outback is not only overwhelmingly beautiful, it is scintillating and masterfully utilised between scenes to afford reflection and contrast to the ‘not-so-sweet’ events that are taking place.
Hamilton Morris as Sam, the thwarted Aboriginal helping hand, is understated and brilliant – a performance that is so nuanced and unique from anything I have ever seen. His story is presented in a typical ‘on-the-run’ fashion, where he is pursued by the Sergeant and a small contingent of other concerned colonists, including the Preacher, after having killed an abusive former soldier in self-defense. He is on the run with his pregnant partner, played with effective realism by Natassia Gorey-Furber, and they wander through the changing landscapes of the bush utilising traditional knowledge and perseverance to survive. The film is loosely presented in three parts: beginning, where character backgrounds are established; middle part, where the main action takes place; and final part, where we come to some form of resolution. Although the first part of the film is thoroughly engaging and taut with tension, there are times during the remaining parts that the film loses its way and becomes clichéd. The idea of the film being a ‘western’ is slightly disingenuous to its intention, but at certain times it inevitably falls into this category. There is an under-utilised prostitute who runs the local saloon, a host of brainless bumpkins who inhabit the saloon day and night, and a learned type from the city (the Judge played by Matt Day) sent to the law-defying frontier to sort out all this murky business. These characters and the way they are presented pale in comparison to the reverence bestowed upon the leads (Morris, Neill and Brown) as well as the enjoyable and sometimes tender quirks that resonate from the minor Aboriginal characters (Gibson John as Archie and the double act of brothers Tremayne and Trevon Doolan as the amusing young Philomac).
Nevertheless, the effort and craft that went into making this film is very admirable and it follows on from Thornton’s excellent debut feature from 2009, Samson and Delilah, where the eroding of Aboriginal tradition and culture in the modern world was unapologetically communicated. There is no arguing how important this director is to the Australian filmscape (as well as the wider world), and Sweet Country is another supreme example of his enormous talent.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5
“…a harsh look at ‘the frontier’…not without several shades of light and dark…”
Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal stockman who shoots and kills a violent pastoralist (similar to a cattle ranger) in self-defense. The stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) go on the run, and local police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and a small posse of men track them. The film is set in a remote area of the Northern Territory in the late 1920s, and both the harshness and beauty of the arid, red-soil landscape is captured on screen. It is in effect a ‘western frontier’ film, where new European settlers displace indigenous occupants, absorbing them iton the new rural economy as a source of cheap labour, but keeping them apart socially. There is the characteristic holy man Fred Smith (Sam Neill), weak but generally good and empathetic, and an assortment of hardened rural outcasts and frontier’s men trying to keep law and order within a restricted view of the world. It sounds a bit contrived, and yet it is actually based on a true story, which the screen writer Steve McGregor and co-producer David Trainter have previously told in their short documentary film Willaberta Jack (2007). I think because this is a retelling of true events and real people that the story comes across as being tame rather than being a searing critique of Aboriginal/Non-Aboriginal relationships in rural Australia. It is more textured rather than being a simple good vs bad narrative. The characters are products of their own histories and own world views.
I notice that Sam Kelly becomes an outlaw; that is, he is a kind-of Aboriginal version of the Ned Kelly outlaw. The townspeople who want him condemned to death in an earlier scene enjoy a silent movie about the real Kelly outlaw, taking great joy in his escaping the law. And it is perhaps this juxtaposition that the film really captures more than anything else. It is not so much about law and justice but about racial tensions and attitudes on the frontier. The film also tackles the topic of outsiders for both black and white. While Sam goes bush with his wife Lizzie, the couple manage to evade the posse sent to capture them, but the Aboriginal people they encounter living on-country prove to be just as hostile. In many respects both Sam and Lizzie are between cultures; not completely in either one. It is a personification of the frontier. And there are elements of this theme too in all of the main characters: the violent pastoralist Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a traumatised returned soldier from the Great War; the police sergeant and his love interest; a Christian preacher living far from town; an Aboriginal tracker; a white pastoralist with an Aboriginal son – all living somewhere outside of cultural ‘norms’. The frontier is a place of damaged souls. There is an interesting parallel between a white women Nellie (Anni Finister) and her teenage daughter; and the Aboriginal wife Lizzie (Furber) and her teenage niece, where the adult women seek to protect the younger girls from the brutality of damaged men.
The lead Hamilton Morris is excellent, as is Bryan Brown, but the whole cast do a fine job. There is a decent script too; the cinematography is mostly fine, especially some beautiful portrait pieces, but I couldn’t help but notice that lots of scenes on verandas are darkly lit. I wondered at one point whether this was deliberate, to show that in dark shadow everyone is a silhouette to the bright sun. But I’m not sure if it was deliberate. And there are short flash-forwards of violence or trauma edited into some scenes to elicit empathy or horror, or perhaps to show the harsh realities of this particular narrative. But I felt these edits added little to the film and could just as easily have been left out. Director Thornton has either worked on or directed films and television projects that are diverse in format and in subject matter, but his directorial emphasis has tended to offer social critiques of indigenous life in Australia (Samson and Delilah 2009; We Don’t Need a Map 2017). This latest work is a worthy contribution. It has a nice steady pace, that suits the quiet, thoughtful disposition of the lead character Sam Kelly. And while it is a harsh look at ‘the frontier’ it is not without several shades of light and dark.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5