1923. Sam (Hamilton Morris) is an indigenous farm worker working for the obsessively Christian immigrant Fred Smith (Sam Neill). While Smith is away on business, an altercation with a neighbouring farmer (Ewen Leslie) sees that farmer dead and Sam on the run from the local police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).
If you have not seen Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton’s award-winning Australian thriller, you should drop everything and see it immediately. Every other film that you see between now and Sweet Country is a needless delay or lost opportunity. This is not simply a sensationally staged and powerful film; it is a necessary work for all Australians. This is our country and heritage. This is our history, and while we thankfully continue to move beyond it we must never ever forget it.
It is true that this is a film about racial discrimination, and the appalling historical treatment of our country’s indigenous people. It portrays brutal injustices undertaken by white settlers. That suggests Sweet Country is a stern lesson of a film; the sort of spoon of castor oil that indicts and berates more than it entertains. This is untrue. Writer/director Warwick Thornton does not need to exaggerate or press a moral lesson to the audience. The crimes are plain to see and patently obvious. What Thornton has also achieved is frame the story – one inspired by true events – inside one of the strongest westerns I have seen in years.
Thornton’s photography captures northern Australia to stunning effect. It is stark and barren, wracked with heat, surreal and alien and yet weirdly beautiful to behold. It is an unforgettable landscape used to spectacular effect. Thornton also uses a particularly clever narrative effect throughout the film, cutting from the characters to short silent flashbacks that reveal emotion, motivation, and back story. There is a wonderful economy of storytelling that is truly world-class. That this film remains a small independent release with a low international profile feels positively heartbreaking.
The characters are efficiently and effectively drawn, with depths springing out with an apparent spontaneity throughout the film. The film is also very well cast. Hamilton Morris is a newcomer to acting, yet delivers a superbly understated performance. He exudes a slow, long-soaked-in sense of pain with limited dialogue and occasional gesture. Natassia Gorey-Furber makes a huge amount out of a slightly limited role as Sam’s wife Lizzie, and together the actors and director build a deep and complicated relationship between them.
Ewen Leslie is an actor whose work I have consistently enjoyed over the past decade or so, via such films as Jewboy and the particularly strong Dead Europe. He plays a monster here: soldier-turned-farmer Harry March, whose personal trauma has led him to a life of alcoholism, violent racism, and the sexual assault of Lizzie while Sam is away. When Sam shoots March dead in self-defence, it is a moment of mixed emotion. It is satisfying to see a monster die, but it comes with the immediate knowledge that for shooting him Sam is almost certainly bound to be hanged for it.
So the chase begins, with Sam and Lizzie effectively running rings around their white pursuers. Sam Neill trails along an increasingly angry pacifist, hoping to ensure his presence ensures no one gets needlessly shot. He is excellent; Neill almost always is. Particularly impressive is Bryan Brown: this is one of the strongest performances I have seen him give. Sergeant Fletcher seems another monster of a man, but humanity leaks onto the screen in fits and starts. By the end of the film he has demonstrated enough facets and startling little moments to represent one of the most three-dimensional and realistic portraits I have seen an actor give all year. He is not likeable, but he is absolutely riveting.
There is a pantheon of Australian films: the ones that stood tall among their contemporaries, and represented the very best and most memorable of our country’s product. Sweet Country is not only Australia’s finest film this year, it absolutely joins that pantheon. This is an excellent and important film. I urge you, if you have not done so already, to watch it as soon as you possibly can.