Sweet Country Review
It goes without saying that the title of director Warwick Thornton’s latest film is deeply ironic. Sweet Country is an incredibly prescient examination of Australia’s history of race relations, a period piece that feels especially timely in a cultural moment where the annual “Australia Day” celebrations are being met with increased scrutiny for celebrating colonisation. Thornton’s film is undeniably bleak, but with a great purpose - it possesses a socio-political subtext with the subjects it explores, that is every bit as impactful as the gritty Outback western in the foreground.
Set in Rural Australia circa 1929, elderly Aboriginal farmer Sam (Hamilton Morris) is sent by preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) to help tend to the expansive cattle yards of war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie). Harry is an utterly repugnant human being, sexually assaulting Aboriginal women he believes to be his property, and leaving a young Aboriginal boy chained up outside his residence overnight. When that boy manages to break free and escape, Harry’s irrational response is to rush to the home of Sam and his wife. But after shooting into their house when they don’t answer to his violent threats, he gets killed in self defence and the couple are left to go on the run for killing a white man.
Thornton made a conscious decision to release the film in Australia just before 26th January, the date of the annual Australia Day celebration. This year saw a growing number of protests against what citizens of Aboriginal descent and their allies refer to as “invasion day” - a day which amounts to nothing more than widespread societal indifference to Europeans colonising their land and making the native residents second class citizens. Sweet Country, although not directly referring to Australia Day, does succeed in making you angry and saddened about the treatment of Aboriginal people throughout history, subverting the “white person solves racism” trope in order to highlight the harsh realities of institutionalised racism that shamefully still feel relevant to this day.
It’s almost impossible to divorce Thornton’s film from the wider political allegory, but his film is commendable for more than just its sheer relevance. For starters, this is one of the most visually alluring westerns to have emerged in some time; Thornton, acting as his own cinematographer, manages to capture the sweeping grandeur of Australia’s Northern Territory, a land of natural beauty that juxtaposes the ugliness of the story being told. He captures the most violent moments with the visceral virtuosity of Sam Peckinpah, although he’s more interested in wider societal intolerance, instead of just examining wounded masculinity in all its forms. There’s no adrenaline rush when he captures the spilling of blood here, just an overbearing feeling of increasing despair.
If there is a flaw to Sweet Country, it’s the occasional lapses into generic dramatic conventions. The third act of the film hinges around a court case, and although the eventual outcome of the case is a subversion of expectations, the preceding section does leave the film feeling momentarily more formulaic than it actually is. From a narrative perspective, it’s important for the gut punch that follows - but in terms of pacing, it feels like the film is falling at the last hurdle, surrendering to dramatic conventions after so brilliantly creating an oppressive atmosphere for the preceding ninety minutes.