Like Warwick Thornton’s iconic debut hit, Samson & Delilah (2009), this film is by no means easy to watch. Racism, physical abuse and slavery dominate the story, with no signs of hiding Australia’s dark and unforgivable past concerning the treatment of Indigenous Australians.
Set in 1929 in the treacherous terrain of Australia’s, Northern Territory, the story follows soft-spoken and amiable farmhand, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). When he is sent by his friend Fred Smith (Sam Neill) to help a cruel, PTSD-suffering war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie), everything goes pear-shaped. Sam ends up killing Harry in self-defence, and is forced to go on the run with his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) across the outback. Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) leads the manhunt to catch the runaways, but things take a turn when the true details of the murder come to light.
Even though the landscapes of Alice Springs and its surrounds are beautifully captured by Thornton in this film, the true standout is non-professional actor, Hamilton Morris. Each movement is slow and deliberate, from the way he walks across the lands to the way he interacts with his wife. With one look he seems to be saying a thousand words, and his loving and gentle nature is juxtaposed with the bitter and violent nature of the white townsfolk. If this film was released earlier, Morris would have been a shoe-in during awards season.
Thornton’s use of flashbacks and flash-forwards are used very cleverly in this historical drama. Whether it be showing scenes of aggressive fighting between Sam and his fellow Indigenous Australians (purely for the entertainment of a white man), or a face covered in blood, Thornton is showing small glimpses of what has happened and what is to come, forcing film-goers into a state of nervousness up until the end of the film.
It’s no surprise Sweet Country picked up a Special Jury Prize at Venice and The Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival. At times confronting, despairing, and utterly brutal, filmgoers will have no choice but to tackle their own beliefs concerning the past and the true meaning of Australia Day. Otherwise, as one character in the film states, “What chance has this country got?”
Sweet Country is in cinemas now. See it at Cinema Nova
Feature Image Credit: Sweet Country– Facebook