Gripping, gruelling and visually poetic, Sweet Country is an expertly crafted movie from the prodigiously gifted director/cinematographer Warwick Thornton – his first since his stunning 2009 debut Samson and Delilah.
Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country has been rapturously received on the international festival circuit, and comes 8 years after his astounding and wrenching feature film debut, Samson and Delilah. Expectations are sky high, then.
So, does Sweet Country meet them? Mostly, yes.
Samson and Delilah was startlingly original in form and style. Thornton has taken a far more conventional approach to Sweet Country, which both adheres to and departs from the conventions of the classic western.
The film is set in the harsh but glorious Northern Territory outback. The year is 1929. This is typical frontier country, peopled mostly by hard-drinking, rough-as-guts cattle farmers and the Aboriginal stockmen who work for them, in most cases virtually as slaves (they are provided with humpies and the most basic of food, and beaten even for suspected misdemeanours).
Devout Christian Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is one of the few decent white station owners. He believes that all are equal in the eyes of the Lord, and treats his Aboriginal workers accordingly. When new neighbour Harry (Ewen Leslie) asks if he can borrow the “black stock” to help him set up, Fred reluctantly agrees to his head stockman Sam (wonderfully played by first-time actor Hamilton Morris) and wife Lizzie (a taciturn, haunting Natassia Gorey-Furber) contributing their services for a couple of days.
Harry abuses Fred’s hospitality, not to mention his borrowed employees – and that’s an understatement. Days later, with Fred away, having left Sam and Lizzie in charge of his house, a drunk and deranged Harry goes on the rampage with a shotgun. Sam kills him in self-defence, then full mindful of the white response that will follow, goes on the run with Lizzie.
The relatively simple chase narrative follows a well-worn path. A posse is assembled, comprising almost all racist whites who assume their prey guilty. There is the added complication of whether, when the accused is brought to trial, the justice system can function properly in an environment of bigotry and near-lawlessness.
With superior bush skills, Sam and Lizzie lead the pursing posse a merry dance as they venture deep into the wilds. Thorton’s expert eye and superb cinematography paints a ravishing picture of the land, capturing both its multi-faceted beauty and inhospitability.
There is a sequence in which Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), the obsessively vengeful local lawman leading the posse, wanders off alone into a seemingly endless sun-baked salt plain, determined to track down Sam whatever the cost. I will not attempt to translate Thornton’s camerawork into words; suffice to say the salt lake cinematography depicting Fletcher’s disorientation and ordeal is imagistic poetry of the highest order, and for me the artistic high point of the film.
I have a few gripes, the most serious being that the film doesn’t quite deliver the emotional hit it should. This could be partly because while the treatment of indigenous people as depicted here is repugnant, it’s hardly an eye-opener. More work on character development might have upped the emotional stakes (there’s no implied criticism of the actors here – they’re terrific).
Next, as is almost always the case in period pieces these days, there are some contemporary vernacular intrusions (grrrr), most notably in the swearing. Don’t think “what the fuck”, for example, was around in 1929.
Then there’s the choice of Johnny Cash’s rendition of Peace in the Valley to accompany the credit roll at the end. There is no musical soundtrack throughout, which works well, enhancing the spare dialogue and adding to the sense of wide open outback space, so the irony of the song choice at the end stands out. That’s fine, but why have an American artist close a quintessentially Australian film? Why not get someone like Dan Sultan to do it?
Overall, though, Sweet Country is an expertly crafted movie from a prodigiously gifted director/cinematographer who is out on his own, not only in Australia, but globally. It’s gripping to watch despite its slow pacing, sometimes gruelling, and visually jaw-dropping. And most importantly, it hammers home the message in a resounding last line of dialogue (to quote it would be spoiling) that the racist outrages of our past are not done and dusted, that as a nation there is much left to do if we are to redeem our sins of the past and achieve true reconciliation with our indigenous people.
Movie Website: http://www.transmissionfilms.com.au/films/sweet-country
Australian release date: Sweet Country in Australian cinemas from 25 Jan 2018
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