- James Mottram
- 5 March 2018
Mesmerising Australian western from Warwick Thornton which follows an Aboriginal couple on the run
The parched, searing landscape of the Australian outback is the ideal setting for a western, as anyone who saw John Hillcoat's The Proposition can attest. Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) adroitly subverts the tropes of the genre to create a mesmerising, often hallucinatory meditation on race, class and political history.
Set in 1929, Thornton and his screenwriters David Tranter and Steven McGregor introduce us to Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal stockman who refuses to be cowed at the hands of brutal white men. The rub comes when Sam's kindly boss, the god-fearing Fred (Sam Neill), lends Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) to his neighbour Harry (Ewen Leslie) to complete some menial work.
A boozy WWI veteran, Harry also has a hideous violent streak; he rapes Lizzie (something she keeps quiet) and later comes after Sam, who winds up shooting Harry dead in self-defence. As a result, Sam and Lizzie go on the run into the outback. Following them into dangerous tribal lands is a posse including Fred and the town's lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), but their pursuit is anything but straightforward.
Drawing intimate, naturalistic performances from the indigenous, non-professional cast members, Thornton is just as adept when it comes to capturing the landscape of the Northern Territory and the MacDonnell Ranges specifically (an experienced cinematographer, he shoots the film himself). And, with no score to speak of, this refuses to ape the traditional, tension-fuelled lovers-on-the-run scenario.
Rather, Sweet Country is more understated and poetic than that – though no less compelling – with bursts of action puncturing the silences and strange, unsettling flash-forwards. With the ironic title firmly pointing the way, Thornton has crafted a fascinating look at the Aboriginal Australian experience, one that keeps surprising you until the final, galling shot.
Selected release from Fri 9 Mar.