Warwick Thornton’s first full-length dramatic feature since scooping the Camera d’Or for his startling debut Samson and Delilah at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Sweet Country packs just as powerful a gut punch.
Set in 1920s Northern Territory outback, where whitefellas left shell-shocked by the cataclysm of the Great War cannot find it in their hearts to treat the blackfellas doing back-breaking work on their land with any respect, it’s a tough life not far from lawlessness.
Into this near-wild frontier, with its vast backdrops both terrifying and awe-inspiring, Thornton and his screenwriters Steen McGregor and David Tranter insert exactly that, a brutal brush with the law.
Drunken and abusive landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie) ‘borrows’ Indigenous man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) from kindly, god-fearing neighbour Fred Smith (Sam Neill). But the terrible abuse that ensues leaves Sam and Lizzie on the run and an obsessive lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), determined to mete justice.
The film rates 95 per cent fresh on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, praise for Thornton’s expansive Australian western has been almost universally effusive, both at home and internationally.
Sweet Country began with a Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, where it had its World Premiere. Its success culminated in the 2018 AACTA Award for Best Film.
“It’s a stark, shocking movie, superbly shot by Thornton who is both cinematographer and director: a film which feels at one level like a provocative exploitation picture such as Straw Dogs or Wake In Fright, and at another level like a classic studio western, with something of The Searchers or Red River.”
Bradshaw added that the film demonstrates, “fiercely powerful storytelling, simple and muscular in one way, but also conveying nuance and sophistication in its depiction of character.”
Variety’s Guy Lodge noted Sweet Country “successfully marries the archetypal characters and scenario of a traditional Western with a culturally specific grounding in Australian history, politics, folklore and racial tension.”
Lodge also singled out Morris and Gorey-Furber for particular praise, saying they played Sam and Lizzie, “with immense dignity, tenderness and pathos by the untrained actors,” and the twin Doolan brothers Tremayne and Trevon jointly portraying young farmhand Philomac, “with an alert perceptiveness and an agreeable hint of cheeky opportunism.”
Referring to the film’s occasional non-linear bursts, The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor said, “Memories and premonitions are intriguingly inserted into the action… The results are unforgettable, a new Australian classic.”
Those flashbacks and flash-forwards also impressed The Adelaide Review’s Lucio Crispino, following its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival, where it won the Foxtel Movies Audience Award for Best Feature and Best Fiction feature.
“To present the seed or fruit of a particular situation while it is still unravelling is to highlight its ethical dimension, to undermine its inevitability. We rarely see this kind of synchronicity between form and philosophy in Australian cinema.”
Sarah Ward, reviewing for Screen International, listed it amongst her favourite films of 2017. She said, “Thornton’s ravishing indigenous western offers a quietly blistering portrait of prejudice that is set in the past but speaks clearly and passionately about Australia’s present.”
In Daily reviewer Suzie Keen admired Thornton’s ability to maintain, “tension and intensity with careful pacing, sparse dialogue, a haunting score,” and also praised his cinematographer’s eye for capturing the harsh the Australian landscape, with Sweet Country shot around Alice Springs and South Australia’s Lake Gairdner.
“Close-ups of native grasses blowing in the wind, a billy boiling and boots scuffing the red dirt are juxtaposed with wide images of the dusty desert, rocky ranges and the shimmering salt lake where Fletcher ends up wandering alone, dazed and dehydrated.”
Jason Di Rosso, presenter of Radio National movie show The Final Cut, noted that accused murderer Sam’s surname is an important clue in regards to the film’s fraught racial politics, with Thornton pointing deliberately to today’s headlines.
“The surname is no accident, as we discover in a later scene where an outdoor projection of The True History of the Kelly Gang makes the none-too subtle but important point that Australians idolise white outlaws and demonise black ones.”
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Watch 'Sweet Country'
*Special Event screening: Simulcast on NITV and SBS Australia*
Saturday 26 January 2019, 9.30pm
Available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast
Genre: Drama, History, Western
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Thomas M. Wright, Ewen Leslie, Matt Day, Gibson John, Natassia Gorey Furber, Anni Finsterer, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan