Released: 9th March 2018
Directed By: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
In 1920’s outback Australia, a black worker stands accused of killing a white man; pain, injustice and hope are all to be felt as Sweet Country quietly searches for civilization and humanity. A western? That is perhaps debatable, but it is a period film portraying a world dominated by men, violence, heat and vast landscape.
Director Warwick Thornton (whose feature Samson and Delilah won the Cannes Camera d’Or in 2009) connects with the beauty and danger inherent to his country, where white men reign over black men with brutality. Opening with the shot of a boiling pot, its black liquid bubbling away over the open fire, we hear the sound of a man being beaten. It is a striking introduction and serves to quickly inform us of the environment we are now immersed in.
In contrast with the time, the ray of hope in the community is Fred Smith (an engaging Sam Neill), who believes that all men are equal. He shares his farm with aboriginal couple Sam and Lizzie (Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey Furber) and all is peaceful until the arrival of stranger Harry March (Ewen Leslie), who inflicts his aggression, drunkenness and mental instability upon those he encounters. The extent of his barbaric nature is quickly revealed when he rapes Lizzie; a disturbing and powerfully audible scene which thankfully is not prolonged.
March then continues his brutality, going on the hunt for local boy Philomac, who was meant to be working on his land. Armed and delusional, he becomes convinced that Sam is harbouring the boy and shots are fired. March is killed on the spot and knowing he cannot defend the killing of a white man, Sam takes his wife and flees. They are followed by a small posse led by the local Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Fred (who wants to ensure that Sam is brought back alive).
Sweet Country unfolds slowly, undulating through scenes at a pace which is evocative of the heat and unforgiving nature of the landscape. When action does occur, it erupts quickly and violently, boiling over before abruptly ending. The downside of this is that you find yourself waiting for these explosive scenes and without them, the film starts to meander, the pacing a little sporadic. Another choice by Director Thornton which affects the film’s pacing, is the decision to insert short, silent flash forwards throughout the action.
It’s hard to be convinced that they entirely work, as they drag you out of the current moment and become somewhat overused. The first, during the initial scene between Fred and March, jars and feels confusing. Perhaps less, instead of more, would have created a stronger impact?
Where the film does excel is in its key scenes, with Thornton managing to encapsulate emotion in a clever blending of image and sound. Certain scenes linger in the mind: the shooting of March and the tinnitus created by the bullet, the posse sitting around the campfire as Fred sings, Sam in his cell hearing the preparation of his fate. However, Sweet Country is at times inconsistent, veering between poetic imagery and obvious statement, particularly in scenes with the young Philomac. Certainly the ending felt a little overstated and characters such as Sergeant Fletcher seemed to change with little explanation or motivation.
Whilst not destined to be a classic, it is an interesting addition to Australian cinema, ambling through important themes and leaving you wondering; how far have we actually come?