Written by – Steven McGregor, David Tranter
Directed by – Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah)
Starring – Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie
Review by Jordan
“We’re all equal here”
Sweet Country is a film to be immensely proud of.
For its director Warwick Thornton, whose eye for displaced shots and ambient use of dialogue as it connects with the solace of the environment is of an esteemed quality, for the cast that embody the desperate, uncomfortably lost and unknowingly perplexed characters in such a fine manner, and for the local audience who can promote its uniquely Australian viewpoint: it’s a film to celebrate.
Few would say it’s without flaw, but fewer still could argue against the power of conflicting irony portrayed in such a nuanced manner, or the striking images of outback Australia, with the red dirt, white sand and clear sky so vivid, with a beauty matched only by the harshness they represent. Thornton, whose previous feature film Samson & Delilah also struck an emotional chord with audiences, sees the landscape as an obstacle too great for man to conquer, and further explores the limitations of human learning, redemption and justice.
Promoted as an Australian Western, though without adherence to many of the expectations that are saddled with the genre, Sweet Country traces Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Indigenous farmhand and friend of landowner Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who, after shooting violent war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence, wanders into the outback with his silent yet distraught wife, knowing well the implication of shooting a ‘white fella.’ Representing the law, Sam is trailed by the determined Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who rides with livestock owner Mick Kennedy, his ‘black stock’ and tracker Archie and Fred, who is convinced of Sam’s innocence.
Each individual here is on their own journey, including Harry March, whose death ignites the animosity and sets into motion the notion that justice itself is on trial. At first glance a despicable villain, March’s character and behaviour is brought closer to home in the form of the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers, following the horrors he witnessed in WW1. Sergeant Fletcher too is a war veteran, and his relentlessness is born from an inability to accept defeat: to accept that the best effort could be in vain, and his conscience is somewhat knowingly clouded by this. His mortality becoming quickly apparent and instigating raw anger, it’s easy to forget the love he was shown capable of upon his introduction, but important not to.
One of the more telling aspects of Sam’s plight is that danger also lurks in the camps of the land’s aboriginal population, and where these tribes proved fatally dangerous to the white law officers using their native weaponry, ultimately when Sam must confront them for the sake of his wife, he does so using a gun. These complex issues of identity are for a mind more capable than my own, but Thornton intertwines them with the overarching narrative very capably.
Where Sweet Country falters is in its balance, as distinct to pacing. Integrity being put on trial is interesting and important, but this more literal aspect is shown at the expense of the trial by nature. The internal and external exploratory themes pondered as Sam is on the loose ask similar questions, with less certain answers. This middle section also features the height of Bryan Brown’s powerful performance; himself and Ewen Leslie portraying complicated rage and antagonism with mastery.
Painting the human landscape of a time far too recent, this is a film that quietly says so much, in the refined manner of a filmmaker of admirable skill.