by Toby Woollaston
“What chance has this country got?” So asks Sam Neill in the Sweet Country’s final moments. Such is the film’s central theme as it examines Australia’s sordid racial past and brings its concerns into the present with a film that is as tragic as it is strikingly beautiful.
Set in the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, Sweet Country tells the story of an aboriginal farm-hand, Sam Kelly. Working for a kind-hearted farmer Fred Smith (Sam Neill), he is “lent” to a neighbouring farmer who is new to the area and in need of an extra hand. Unfortunately, the neighbourly gesture goes sour when the new farmer proves to be an unhinged war veteran and Sam finds himself unwittingly complicit in a provoked act of deadly violence. As the local authority, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse, set about hunting Sam down, Sweet Country takes the opportunity to play cute with a few western genre tropes; however it never loses sight of its charged racial commentary.
Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) confidently struts a visual approach that avoids the temptation to use an emotive musical score. Stylistically informed by the likes of Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) and John Maclean (Slow West), Thornton’s camera slowly, but intently, prowls the landscape with a quiet tension that heightens a sense of dread. Thornton has done a stunning job at capturing Australia’s picturesque outback and pitted its beauty against the ugliness of the denizens who run amok within. Such is the fine line Thornton treads, that it is perhaps inevitable a few missteps have been made where aesthetics have obstructed narrative concerns; a minor quibble.
Down-under stalwarts Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are typically good, and although they provide the film’s star pulling power, the real heavy lifting is provided by its aboriginal cast, specifically Hamilton Morris who superbly encapsulates Sam Kelly’s heart-breaking anguish, fear and frustration.
Sweet Country provides little in the way of relief to its oppressive tone, but this cautionary tale is skilfully told with a brutal eloquence and should really be considered mandatory viewing.
See more of my NZME reviews here.