Director: Warwick Thornton
Sweet Country’s plot, set in 1920s Australia, is based on a real-life event which, surely and sadly, resembles countless related injustices like it. Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is an Aboriginal farmhand, living on the property of sympathetic preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill — “We’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord” his motto). Beyond their farm is the larger community of a remote outback station, with other farmers, other Aborigines, a saloon, a man of the Law: Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). Warwick Thornton, director and cinematographer, devotes his camera to collective panoramas: of this community, and of the land all around them.
As the deliberately disorientating flash-forwards signify, racial tension is already inherent in this present, and it stretches a long time back and a long time ahead into the future. Nonetheless, it takes the arrival of a new neighbour — Harry March, a veteran of Gallipoli with PTSD and a racist, abusive streak — to propel the narrative action. Before long, Sam is on the run with his wife after committing murder in self-defence. Sweet Country begins as a frontier drama, turns into a pursuit across the outback, and finally settles on courtroom procedural.
This genre-hopping style delivered at a meditative pace may frustrate a few, especially those looking for a more dramatically satisfying end to Fletcher’s pursuit of Sam — it only ends because and when Sam decides to stop and go back. No matter how obstinately determined white settlers like Fletcher are, natives like Sam are always going to be one step ahead in a territory they know like the back of their hands. Territory, the outback, the land itself, and all the various ways of owning and belonging to it, this is what Sweet Country, in theme and cinematography, is really about.
As in many Australian films, there’s a mystique about the land, which permeates an aura of potential menace around the so-called civilisation of the white settlers. The relationship the Aboriginals have to the land is different though. Visually, the on-the-lam couple are framed harmoniously at the centre of widescreen landscapes, reflecting their innate rootedness to this land. But it’s not so simple as that. Thornton takes the time to make the point that not all of Australia’s First Peoples are one and the same, there being over 500 different Aboriginal tribes originally. We see this when Archie, the tracker accompanying Fletcher, refuses to set foot on the baked white terracotta of a salt desert, to him a boundary: “I can’t go there, that’s not my land”. An ironic contrast to the arrogant advances, without a care for cultural sensitivities, that Fletcher’s sort partakes in.
In the first third, a proliferation of Searchers-esque shots symbolise the fine threshold between being inside (the home, ‘civilisation’) and outside (the Outback, the desert all around the home). This is partly because Sweet Country is a Western in a way, albeit one that lays down Australian markers on the genre (it’s more similar to Charles Chauvel’s homegrown classic Jedda (1955) than to Ford’s film). But more than that, it says something about a wider split, in Australia’s national identity, and the conflicted divide at the heart of being Aborigine on the lands that were stolen from them. Two of the wider cast of characters (Archie the ambivalent tracker and farmhand, and Philomac the young boy who is in many ways the core of the film) fascinatingly illuminate this internal struggle of trying to live with a foot in each camp, forced to assimilate on one hand, but wanting to maintain ties to a culture thousands of years old on the other.
Sweet Country isn’t flawless — it does not perfectly succeed in its ambitious attempt at even-handedly depicting an entire community, some characters being far more weakly written than others — but it looks stunning, boasts fine performances from the two vets Neill and Brown (themselves landmarks of Australian film history) and the non-pro Aboriginal cast alike, tells a sadly still too relevant tale of institutionalised racism and dehumanisation, and really grapples with the DNA of Australian identity in an intelligent, honest way.
A clever touch is the direct allusion to another landmark Australian film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the world’s first feature-length movie. As Fletcher returns home from chasing Sam empty-handed, white Australian villagers are watching an outdoor projection, boisterously cheering the exploits of folk hero Ned Kelly, cop-killer and outlaw. The twisted irony is that the Kelly in this film, Sam, outwitted the Law and killed in self-defence but is regarded as less than human. He, unlike his namesake Ned, could never be hailed a hero, purely because of his race. These contradictions remain the roots modern Australia has been built upon, as Sam Neill’s final line underlines, perhaps a bit too obviously. But Sweet Country is holding up a mirror to the present day in order to ask, if these deep fissures and identity crises are still ravaging all of us, what can we, together, do about it?