It is the 1929 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is an Aboriginal stockman working on the property of Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Fred has a new neighbour, Harry March (Ewan Leslie). He is trying to improve his own property and asks Fred to loan him Sam for a few days. He refers to Sam as “black stock”. Fred tells Harry that everyone is equal in the eyes of The Lord. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) do the work, but find Harry a difficult boss. He is a shell-shocked veteran of the Great War and has a hair-trigger temper. There’s conflict with Harry that leads to a series of terrible events. Sam and Lizzie go on the run from the law. They are pursued by a party of men from the nearby township, led by policeman Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). Sam knows that white law will find him guilty no matter what the circumstances.
Writer, director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton is best known for the multi-award winning SAMSON AND DELILAH (2009). In his latest feature, SWEET COUNTRY he creates a bleak tale of black and white Australia colliding head-on. From the moment Sam and Lizzie get to Harry’s property, there is rising tension. Because this is Australia between the wars, the races are divided; Aboriginal people are not regarded as citizens or in any way the equal of white people. All interactions between white and black characters connect back to race in some way. This is life at this time; there is no alternative view, no political debate. One of the aims of this story is to contrast the past with the present.
There are a number of characters who pass through this story. We see them in the small town or its surroundings. This serves as a snapshot of Australia in the 1920s. The judiciary, law enforcement, the church and government are represented; other Aboriginal stockmen and farm workers are there; land owners and shop keepers are also present. Eventually they all assemble in the town’s dusty main street because there is no proper courthouse in which to try cases.
A number of critics look upon SWEET COUNTRY as a version of a Western. This road is not an uncommon one for Australian films; THE PROPOSITION (2005), RED HILL (2010) and MYSTERY ROAD (2013) have also been said to contain elements of the genre. This type of analysis seems in part for international marketing purposes; calling it a Western is a convenient handle to pick up the story, but it’s a debatable label. The movie has characters with guns on horseback, a chase through a desert landscape, and a fight between peoples; white versus black. It has concepts that are applicable universally, but it is still very particularly a story set in Australia.
SWEET COUNTRY has already taken the Special Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. This movie is a gritty, dark drama about colonialism and racial injustice. It’s a beautifully filmed journey into the outback, where people stripped down to their essential selves, commit terrible crimes. And it’s a powerful, violent story about a painful history that has echoes into the present. 1hr 50minutes. (8/10)