TL;DR – Sweet Country is a film I think more people need to see because it confronts our nation’s past and helps contextualise the grief of a people.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No
There are some films that are so perfectly timed with their release that they capture a moment in time. We saw that last year with Wonder Woman (see review) and we are likely to see it in a months’ time with Black Panther, and if there was ever a film that Australians needed to watch at the moment it is Sweet Country. It is a film that is both bleak and beautiful, fascinating and demoralising, a difficult film to watch, but also one that everyone needs to see.
So to set the scene, it is the 1920s in the central Australian bush, and three families live outside the local town on ranches trying to make a living off the land. Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is a deeply religious man who lives with Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) his Indigenous helpers. When one day a new neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie) appears on his doorstep. He needs help with repairing part of his new homestead, while Fred can’t do it Sam is happy to help him. Well as soon as they arrive at the homestead the tone dramatically changes as Harry shows an unpleasant affection to Sam’s niece Lucy (Shanika Cole), and reveals that he may not have returned whole from the First World War. Well, things deteriorate quickly and soon Sam and Lizzie are on the run from the town through no fault of their own.
Now I want to spend a sometime dissecting the themes and the story but before we get there I want to take a moment to look at the production side of Warwick Thornton’s beautiful film. There has been a phrase that has been popularised in recent years that ‘every frame is a painting’ and if you ever want an example of just how true that is well you have to look no further than Sweet Country. Some of those wide shots of the Australian landscape as the sun sets were simply phenomenal. However, it is not just the beautiful landscapes that he has captured, every move has power, every step from the light into the dark, every shift of the head as the world presses in. You see this in the opening shot which is of someone making something on a fire pit while an argument goes on somewhere off camera, it is such an evocative way to bring you into the film. Now from here, we will be getting into some [SPOILERS] so I would advise some caution if you have not seen the film. There is one scene that shows Warwick Thornton amazing use of the camera lens to capture emotion. You know something is wrong when Harry closes the door behind him as he walks in, but then he walks through the house and closes every door and window in succession. Every time a window or door is shut less light makes it into the room, so with every moment the feeling of dread grows and you feel it and see it happening in front of you. As well as the visuals, one of the really interesting things is the lack of a soundtrack, well at least a traditional musical soundtrack. Instead, the film uses the natural sounds of the bush to create a natural backing for the film, it is really effective, indeed, it was about a third of the way through the film that it clicked that there was no music.
As well as the production, I really have to give credit to the actors who are all giving phenomenal performances. When I was researching the film I was surprised that Hamilton Morris only has one other acting credit because he has an amazing power to emote through his eyes, I hope he gets to be in more films after this. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown are as amazing as you expect them to be and they sort of play mirror opposites of each other with the social veneer to keep things ‘civilized’. Indeed, the whole supporting cast brings something special to this film, the unhinged slipping of a man that cannot escape the war, the pain of carrying around a reminder of a horror inflicted to you, growing up and not knowing your place in the world. One of the ways the director fleshes out the characters and gives us some more insight into how they act is through these small cutaway scenes. These little vignettes give the film and the characters an extra layer and help draw you further into this world.
Both the acting and the production are there to pull you into this world and its characters before they hit you with an emotional cricket bat to the head. So in this section, we will be talking about the end of the film, so this is your final [SPOILER] warning if you have not seen the film. So at the start of my review, I talked about how more people need to go see this film because if more people really understood the framework on which this country was founded, well then it may lead to a more productive future for everyone. Sweet Country is very much a story about race, it is not even subtle with Indigenous people referred to as ‘Black Stock’ ie animals in the first minutes of the film, and unlike some of the other films that have graced our screens recently like Bright (see review) it actually has something important to say about it. So let me put this scenario to you, what would you do if a drunk mentally compromised man started banging on your door, shooting through your windows and threatening your family? Well, you would do exactly what Sam did if you had a rifle at hand, and if it was a white man shooting another white man there would have been no issue with what happened if it was a white man shooting an Indigenous man no one would have batted an eyelid. However, an Indigenous man shooting a white man well we better go hunt him down and ‘bring him to justice’.
Sam did nothing wrong, Lizzie did nothing wrong, but they both paid for it because they lived in a society that saw Indigenous people, their lives, their culture, their language, even the very notion of their peoplehood as being inferior, and such they had to be hunted down. Sam saved Fletcher’s (Bryan Brown) life, it meant nothing, Sam and Lizzie returned to town of their own volition, it meant nothing, Harry March was drunk/unhinged and was hunting a young Indigenous boy who had escaped after he chained him to a rock and came into their house and threatened to kill them, it meant nothing, Judge Taylor (Matt Day) rightly declared that what happened on that day was self-defence, it meant nothing. Why? Because the person who died was white and the person who killed him was Indigenous, and that was all that mattered. This is the world that our country was built upon and we need to accept that that was a reality and that its legacy reaches every part of Australian society even to this day.
So is Sweet Country a perfect film, no, some plot threads are presented as important only to fall away, some of the inserts either give away upcoming plot points or are used as bait-and-switch, and there are some other small issues. However, do we recommend Sweet Country, of course, we do. It is a powerful film, and a film Australians needs to see at the moment. Make sure you catch it in theatres soon, hell there is a long weekend coming up and maybe that would be the perfect time to look at a film charting a core part of what made Australia the country it is today.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Sweet Country
Directed by – Warwick Thornton
Written by – David Tranter & Steven McGregor
Cinematography by – Warwick Thornton
Edited by – Nick Meyers
Starring – Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey Furber, Shanika Cole, Sam Neill, Thomas M. Wright, Gibson John, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Ewen Leslie, Bryan Brown, Matt Day & Anni Finsterer
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R