Director: Warwick Thornton
Stars: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill
There is a point in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country in which the director shows us the sun. Acting as his own cinematographer, Thornton passes the lens of the camera across the sky and our distant star is recast as a remorseless beast sporting white-hot tendrils. And you realise that very few filmmakers think to show us the sun. Or, rather, it feels as though no one has shown us it before somehow.
That sense of raw closeness carries over through much of this quietly impressive piece of work. Set in the Australian outback at some point in the 1920’s, we discover a country between two world wars, suspended in a kind of entropy as race relations teeter on the brink of progressive overhaul. As we have seen all across the western world, said change has been incremental, bloody, hard-fought and steeped in shame.
Said shame belongs to the white man, whose colonial footprint has trodden too far. The first white man we meet in Sweet Country is Sam Neill’s friendly god-fearing Fred Smith, who – like everyone here actually – lives way out in the sticks far from the world. A new stationmaster has arrived named Harry March (Ewen Leslie). Harry views Fred’s aboriginal companions Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) with suspicious eyes. Fred reassures him, “we’re all equal here”.
Fred’s thinking in this regard turns out sadly, wearily, to be in the minority. Harry presses Fred for the favour of ‘borrowing’ Sam to help on his own property, leaning on his sense of charity. This experience is enlightening for all parties, as Harry shows his true colours quickly, taking advantage of his position of power with Lizzie. Later still, Harry also mistreats a local half-caste boy, Philomac, chaining him to a rock when he suspects the lad of stealing.
A war veteran clearly suffering from his experiences, Harry quickly shows himself to be a drunk and dangerously violent individual. An incident spins out of his control and he winds up in a confrontation with Sam Kelly. Sam defends himself and Harry winds up dead. Things being the way they are, Sam and his wife have little choice but to flee; he’s killed a white man and its the 1920’s.
Which brings in another of the significant players in Sweet Country. Another war veteran, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), acts in the capacity of lawman at the nearby town. With scant assistance, he sets out to capture Sam and his wife. Fred goes along to make sure they come back alive.
This middle portion of the film is arguably its most dazzling, as Thornton strips all the meat from the bone of the conventional western. Here the lawman is a figure of mockery, goaded and tested by the fleeing Sam Kelly, who never once lets Fletcher forget who has the upper hand in this terrain. There’s no score to be heard, befitting the desolate landscape which Thornton captures with crisp, clean beauty. Echoing a sentiment vocalised earlier in the story, the sequence shows that the white man may have stolen the land, but he’ll not bring the wisdom to understand it.
After the brutal and bloody opening act, and the staggering sparseness of the middle, Sweet Country wraps with its most conventional third, framing the piece as a crime story and, as sporadic time jumps assure us, a tragedy. It’s difficult to talk freely about this without spoiling it, but Sweet Country takes a turn in sensibility here, having the feeling of a play transposed (it isn’t). The formalism is a byproduct of the subject matter. The law is rigid, after all. Still, Thornton finds new ways of shooting old material, and the emotional weight isn’t lost upon the viewer.
In one astonishing sequence, Sergeant Fletcher returns to the town pub during a hand-cranked screening of the 1906 feature The Story Of The Kelly Gang (the irony should not be lost on the audience). Fletcher rides right into the projection. It is cast on his horse and on his face. A moment later, inside the pub, the film can be seen through the door. It fills the outside. The whole world is a film. A bold and daring reminder of the artifice of movie making.
But that’s one of the great achievements here. Sweet Country doesn’t come ‘based on a true story’ (though one can assume events similar to those depicted here happened all over Australia at the time). It’s a fictional tale. Make belief. We go to the cinema, we pay our money and we’re told stories. But in these flights of fancy, in these fictions, the artist shows us truth about the world. Film is a collaborative medium. It takes writers and actors and set designers and costuming and all those other creative jobs you see listed in the credits.
A film is the sum of its parts and it is more than the sum of its parts. Sweet Country acknowledges both things simultaneously and keeps the audience under its spell while doing so. Things may end predictably, but the journey is no mean feat.