Review - Sweet Country
By midlandsmovies, Apr 1 2018 09:24PM
Sweet Country (2017) Dir. Warwick Thornton
Sweet Country is a film that quite literally starts as it means to go on. The first images of the film have various unknown black and white substances being placed in a melting pot of sorts and over these shots we hear but don’t see two men fighting and racial slurs being hurled until the pot comes to a boil.
Warwick Thornton, the director and cinematographer of the film has a clear vision for Sweet Country, a sweeping Australian epic that takes place shortly after the First World War in the 1920’s. Within that period lies racial disparity, as several characters point out throughout the film, “whitefellas own the land” whilst the Indigenous Australians are nothing more than field hands and cheap labour. This feels more like slavery than Jim Crow, as the Indigenous are kept outside, poorly treated and threatened with death if they flee.
Thornton introduces Harry March (Ewen Leslie) into this framework, an unstable war veteran who has just acquired a cattle station close to town. He approaches a neighbouring station ran by Christian preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) to ask for help in establishing his land. An initially hesitant Smith agrees to send his Aboriginal farmer Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his family to help, however this swiftly deteriorates as the increasingly disturbed March ends the short working relationship by raping Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber).
With Sam and his family returning to Smith’s homestead, March moves onto another neighbouring station to “borrow” another “blackfella” who like Sam struggles to maintain a working relationship with Harry and runs away. Thinking the runaway has taken refuge in Fred Smith’s station, March’s temper reaches boiling point resulting in brutal violence and Sam fleeing with his wife through the beautiful yet unforgiving outback.
Sweet Country at its core is a simple story. A simple yet shocking depiction of Australia’s jaded past. As a storyteller Thornton excels here, nothing feels forced or self-righteous, the simplistic premise of Sam being a fugitive in the outback does not make the more complex themes less important. If anything the violence, racism and injustice that flows throughout the film has a greater stage because the story is so easy to follow and understand.
Because of this Sweet Country gives off a classic Western feel. And not just because of its sandy exterior. One example being the introduction of Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) of the local police as he forms a small band of men in the search for Sam, including preacher Fred Smith who disagrees with his methods frequently.
The film's strongest attribute is easily Warwick Thornton’s direction. As mentioned before, his decision to not tackle heavy themes with a rough hand is not only admired but successful. Also there is a pattern throughout the two hour running time where several characters’ fates are teased in flash forward shots throughout the film. Not only original but an interesting way to keep the audience guessing as to how the character has ended up at that point. This form of non-linear storytelling is not one I’ve seen before but left me wholly impressed.
Partially funded by Screen Australia, which is the Australian Government's funding body for the Australian Film Industry, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country accomplishes what it sets out to do, to bring attention to Australia’s past, no matter how brutal.
Most Western civilisations have a shameful past when it comes to racial divide and the racism that is a result of that. There have been many films in recent years from different countries that tell the tragic stories of those difficult periods, Sweet Country can take its place as one of the better films in that regard. This needed to be made for the people of Australia, to educate them of the battles the indigenous Australians faced daily and the scars the Australians bore when returning home from the Western front.