LFF 2017: Sweet Country Review
Northern Territory, Australia, the 1920s. Harry March (Ewen Leslie) is a white settler, damaged by his experiences in the Great War and often drunk as a result. At a time of land expansion, he and his neighbours see wide-open vistas ripe for development. On the other hands, their aboriginal stockmen and servants have a different picture. Local preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is unusual in the decency in which he treats the locals. He lends his right-hand man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to March. However, March is brutal in return. In an altercation over child labourer Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), a gun goes off and March lies dead. Sam goes on the run, and a manhunt led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets off in pursuit.
The wide-open spaces of the Australian outback seem perfect terrain for a Western. Indeed, it has proven so, at least as far back as the Ealing production The Overlanders. Sweet Country is certainly in that tradition, but Warwick Thornton's film moves in a few directions you might not anticipate.
Thornton made a big impression with his first feature as director/cinematographer – and in that case writer as well – of Samson & Delilah. That film won six Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Film and wins for Thornton in all three capacities. That was in 2009 and since then Thornton has made two feature documentaries, some short films (including a segment of the portmanteau feature The Turning) and work in his original job as cinematographer. So, eight years after Samson & Delilah, Sweet Country is his second dramatic feature. The script is by David Tranter (also the film's sound recordist) and Steven McGregor. Given the presence of one of a generation of indigenous Australian filmmakers behind the camera, the film does give considerable time to its indigenous characters, having them speak their own language (with English subtitles) and making it very clear through his camera placement as to whose land this “sweet country” - at the time the film is set just two decades away from being federated - was built on, one especially so in the years after World War One.
From the outset, Thornton doesn't go an expected route. The opening shot is of a cookpot, its contents bubbling away, as tea and sugar (black and white) are added – accompanied by sounds we hear offscreen but don't see what is taking place. Thornton keeps the viewer off centre, with flashbacks and flashforwards cut into the action, giving the film an ominous tone as it's clear that not everyone will see out the film alive. The use of sound is noteworthy, with some scenes taking place off screen as mentioned, one scene taking place in darkness so we hear but don't see it (considering what is happening, just as well), sound muffled in the wake of a loud gunshot, and the sound falling away entirely in the brief flashes forward and back. There's no music score. Thornton also gets in a reference to Australia's outlaw past, with stockmen sitting watching a showing of Australia and the world's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, about a criminal and outsider of the further past. It's not a coincidence that the man being hunted here also has the surname Kelly.
Sweet Country has strong performances from his cast, from familiar names of an older generation such as Bryan Brown and Sam Neill to the non-professional Hamilton Morris. Thornton's widescreen camerawork enables the film's locations (shot around Alice Springs and locations in South Australia) to play their part in the unfolding. It's a compelling film with some tough lessons about Australia's past. Very impressive.