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SWEET COUNTRY gets 9/10 Country and Western

Directed by Warwick Thornton
Starring Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Natassia Gorey Furber


In the remote Northern Territory in 1929, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is forced to kill a man in self defence, after he mistakenly believes Kelly to be harbouring escaped “black stock” (the actual term used for a young indigenous boy). With Kelly being aboriginal himself, he’s unable to have faith in a fair and impartial trial for his actions, and instead flees his homestead with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber).

Incensed by the shooting of a white man by a blackfella, and spurred on by the angry sentiment of the town Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) gathers a posse to pursue the couple, and bring them to “justice”. It’s upon these relatively simple bones, that director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) creates an Outback Western, that gives us an insight into the historical treatment and attitudes towards indigenous Australians, that has resonance almost a century later.

Visually Sweet Country is a sweeping western, but in terms of thematics, narrative, and its rejection of a musical score, it is something else. In many ways this owes more to the Westerns of the 60s or 70s and their reaction against classics of the genre. This is a dark and complex look at the genre, breaking from the traditional setting in terms of time and place, and allowing for an exploration of characters and the social political setting of the era (and how far we’ve come, and still have to go).

There is also an extraordinary visual style at play here. It’s not just in the loving way Thornton conveys the beauty of the sweeping vistas, but also in the distinctive cinematic lexicon he employs. We frequently see flashes of imagery, both predictive and retrospective, that acts almost as a stream of consciousness for the characters portrayed. This opens the scope of Thornton’s story telling, giving us an amazingly dense character study in few words.

Nor is Sweet Country afraid to play with the conventions of the genre. In a number of sequences it will invert the iconic final shot of The Searchers (John Wayne framed against the homestead door alienated from “settlement” by his connection to the land), using it for a more sinister intent. One scene in particular stands out, as the doors and windows of the homestead are closed for nefarious purposes, slowly robbing us of the view of the land, and the light associated with it. It emphasises the sense of isolation from the environment, of conquering a place, and trying to wrestle it to your wishes that Thornton rallies against. That, and the historical Australian setting, convey a sense of “Manifest Destiny” (to borrow the Western term) employed with disastrous effect to indigenous communities around Australia. Sweet Country is a tale told by the occupied, and even as they try to fit in, or to go unnoticed, the consequences are grave.

Morris shows those consequences perfectly. In his feature film debut he carries Kelly through a complex range of scenarios, always giving him dignity and a certain reserve in his dealing with the European settlers. Kelly isn’t a perfect hero, he’s a man that has flaws (anger, pride and fear), but is pushed to breaking solely due to the colour of his skin. By contrast Brown plays his Sergeant as a man of bravado, conscious of his flaws, but publicly unapologetic of them (although we do see a more nuanced side privately, where he expresses his self doubt). The conflict between these two, is really what drives the story, although it is nice to have Sam Neill take the middle ground here, as a Christian man trying to love all God’s children equally. He adds a couple of touches of comic relief at needed moments, that act as a pressure valve to the building tension.

A spectacular Australian Western, Sweet Country is a stunning piece of cinema that will make you reflect on the history of our continent.


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