Director: Warwick Thornton
Screenwriters: Steven McGregor and David Tranter
Runtime: 113 mins.
Australian Release Date: 25 January 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 17 October 2017.
I’m calling it early but I’m confident the prediction will stand firm - you won’t see a better Australian film this year than Warwick Thornton’s sublimely powerful film Sweet Country. It’s a transcendent Aussie western inspired by a true event that took place in the Northern Territory in 1929; it has the scope of John Ford’s classic film The Searchers (without the clumsy humour), with Bryan Brown playing John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards role as the obsessive racist hell-bent on eliminating the offending ‘native’. It’s big, brutal and beautiful and not to be missed.
When Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a shell-shocked WWI veteran, asks his neighbour Mick (Thomas M. Wright) for a ‘loan’ of some of his Aboriginal stockmen, he is lent Mick’s headman (Gibson John) and a young lad called Philomac (played by twin brothers Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). Harry chains the boy up for the night once they arrive back at his station but Philomac, unused to that kind of harsh treatment, escapes and flees to the neighbouring property, where he hides out. The only occupants of the homestead are the Aboriginal head stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his pregnant wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) because the station owner Fred Smith (Sam Neill) has gone into town to assist in the building of a new church. Harry immediately assumes the couple is hiding Philomac and, enraged, starts threatening the pair. When he goes too far, Sam is forced to act and fires back at the crazed Harry which, unbeknownst to Sam and Lizzie, is witnessed by Philomac. Shocked and terrified by what’s happened, the two go on the run. Once word of the events gets around, a party led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and comprised of Fred, Mick and Aboriginal tracker Archie (Gibson John) sets off on their trail, but Sam is an expert bushman and it’s soon evident that he’s playing with them and won’t be caught unless he’s willing to allow that to happen. And if he does, will his side of the story be heard, given that he’s a black man in a white-ruled country?
Not only is Thornton, the director of the Camera d’Or-winning movie Samson and Delilah, one of the best directors around, he’s also an exceptional cinematographer and he and his son, Dylan River, shot the superb footage. It was largely filmed on Arrernte/Luritja land, some 30 or 40 kilometres south of Alice Springs in the MacDonnell Ranges, and it’s stunning country - as striking as Ford’s Monument Valley location. Thornton’s editor, Nick Meyers, who’s cut everything from The Boys to last year’s Australia Day, has done the footage great justice too; under his sure hand the land becomes a central character. Importantly, the images are allowed to speak for themselves - there is no score or soundtrack, just the sounds of the outback, the wind through the trees, the screech of birds, the buzz of insects. Of course, none of this would matter much if the script wasn’t up to the task of engaging the audience but Steven McGregor’s screenplay, working from an original script by Aboriginal sound recordist David Tranter (who knew the story through his family), grips you from the opening scenes and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll.
The mainly novice Aboriginal actors match the skills of their professional colleagues: Hamilton Morris does a terrific job as Sam, a man of few words who’s at home on his land but unsure of himself in the white man’s world, and the Doolan twins encapsulate Philomac, a boy who’s straddling two realities and having to find his feet in both of them. Bryan Brown, as craggy now as an outback mountain range, just gets better and better (check him out in Australia Day too) and Sam Neill, Matt Day, Ewen Leslie and Thomas M. Wright are all uniformly excellent.
"What hope have they got?" cries Fred Smith at one crucial juncture of Sweet Country but he could be talking about the newcomers rather than the country's original inhabitants. Thornton has said of his film, “The issues raised in Sweet Country rarely find their way into mainstream consciousness. David Tranter and Steven McGregor have written an authentic story of a world which is as brutal as it is heartfelt. My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. This immersive approach is designed to break down the cultural boundaries between us and bring us together.” For all our sakes, let’s hope it works.