Review: Sweet Country

Powerful outback western rides the liminal space between colliding worlds. Thornton offers Australian mythmaking at its finest.

Just as it seems that justice is about to be served on shimmering salt flats that signify both the wondrous beauty and unforgiving hardness of Australia’s vast majesty, gifted filmmaker Warwick Thornton upends the tragic frontier play that is Sweet Country.

A subtle film founded on shifting meanings – the title for one – it’s a disruption we should have seen coming and isn’t the last such upset. His long-awaited sophomore dramatic feature, following 2009 debut Samson and Delilah, this re-coded outback western is set in a 1920s Northern Territory town populated by whitefellas shell-shocked in the aftermath of the Great War’s cataclysm. Having favoured building a pub over an absent church, there’s a sense that beliefs are shaken loose here.

Released on the eve of an Australia Day that saw enormous demonstrations in favour of changing the date to be more inclusive, though the genre trappings are recognisable, the story is at least partly unshackled from the colonial narrative. From the very outset, as bush tucker brews on fire, Thornton signals a bending of time and meaning that sings of the Aboriginal understanding of the Dreaming. We are privy to dislocated and disconcerting voices battling, a reckoning yet to come and one that echoes harmful racial divisions still prevalent today. It’s the first of many such glimpses of actions past and present that temper what we think we know.

Sam Neil plays cattle station owner Fred Smith, a kindly man of faith who regards his indigenous workers Sam Kelly, the surname significant, and wife Lizzie (newcomers Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber) as almost equals. Almost, and yet in a sure sign of self-satisfied paternalism, Fred still hands over their lives as free labour despite his misgivings on meeting unnerving new neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie).

It’s a fateful error that will result in a terrible sexual assault, unseen in the darkness of Harry’s shuttered homestead yet felt all too keenly nonetheless, a brutal action that sets in motion yet more calamities. More freely given labour, sees another landowner Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) hands over his young farmhand Philomac, with whom he shares an unspoken if not entirely kindly bond. A role shared by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, they offer much-needed rapscallion respite from a creeping menace.

When the young lad is left chained like livestock for his misdemeanours, denied and yet revealed to us in one of the film’s many time shifts, the ease of Philomac’s escape leads to yet more violence. Something of a mythic trickster, walking between worlds and sowing mischief as he goes before stealing away, his flight leads a marauding Harry to Fred’s door, minded by Sam in his absence. When a gunfight ensues, with Sam acting in self-defence, who in this blasted place would grant him the benefit of the doubt?

As such, Sam and Lizzie flee into the old country so rudely encroached upon, a place in which they enjoy the upper hand, pursued with Ahab-like obsession by white man’s law in the form of the town’s increasingly irrational Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). Dragging Fred, Mick and an underling in tow, it’s their ill-fated quest that brings us to the desolation of the salt flats and a freedom seemingly guaranteed ultimately surrendered by a cruel trick of fate unto a system that celebrates an Irish cop killer – with a knowing glimpse of he world’s first feature film The True History of the Kelly Gang – but bays for the blood of a black man who shoots a psychotic white man.

As the film shifts gears again into legal drama, there bends the arc of time once more as a court case playing out almost a century ago echoes appalling levels of indigenous incarceration now.

Thornton once more directs and captures the film’s impressive cinematography, greatly aided by nature’s very best light shows, but has ceded writing duties to collaborators Steven McGregor and David Tranter. Until that courtroom drama, played out in front of a baying crowd gathered on the steps of the pub, it is a film of sparse and fitful dialogue, relying heavily on the expressive, excellent performances of Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber for long stretches.

If I have a minor quibble, it’s that while Lizzie’s silence feels arguably contextual, the decision to render Anni Finsterer’s pub owner mostly mute is a little more jarring. Granted, though, when she does speak out, her male ego myth-shattering precision is a welcome reminder that not all narratives conveyed by those in charge are to be trusted.

There’s much nuance in these quiet spaces, as well as in mirrored images like a rope used either for execution in the name of the law or erection in the name of god. If Thornton indulges his most overt symbolism in a trinket stolen by Philomac, it is well earned. Sweet Country, one of the finest Australian films in recent memory, feels like it has, indeed, set a clock ticking towards justice long overdue.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords