In Sweet Country, everyone bears an albatross around their neck – and they hang heavy.
Warwick Thornton’s haggard Outback western throbs with the pressures of a baking sun on the Northern Territory of Australia, 1929. Frontiersmen and Aboriginals rub shoulders, eking out miserable, meagre existences in the barren expanse. Generations-old feuds, charged with racism and colonialist resentment, blight the most minor interactions. It is not a life that brings joy to any who take part, and that gruelling, persistent struggle is realised in this – one of the most powerful, delicately-crafted cinematic experiences of the year so far.
Hamilton Morris stars in a spellbinding late-in-life debut as middle-aged Aboriginal farmer Sam Kelly, who tends the land at the homestead of the godly Fred Smith (Sam Neill). The two share a quiet, staunchly masculine understanding that borders on affection – a cross-racial friendship that is jarringly rare in the world Thornton evokes, and one of the few glimmers of hope he offers.
When the grizzled, spiteful veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) sets up on a nearby farm, Fred permits his new neighbour the services of Sam for a few days, with Sam bringing his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) in tow. Harry’s vitriolic prejudice is apparent at once – Thornton’s spare, oblique dialogue falls away into blunt, brutal bile in Leslie’s thick Aussie drawl.
Pressure continues to simmer painstakingly across the first third of the film, which sets up its harsh, expansive world with workmanlike clarity and precision, before the lid inevitably blows off following an horrific violation and a fatal confrontation. Harry and Lizzie are made fugitives, escaping into the wilderness with a company of lawmen and their rampant intolerance nipping at their heels.
Of course, Sweet Country is not a rip-roaring chase movie, nor is it a bloody actioner. Sam – who truly carries the entire weight of this harsh, beleaguered world on his back – does not face down his pursuers in a noble showdown, nor does he gain righteous vengeance for the injustices brought down upon himself or his family. In Morris, Thornton has found the perfect centre point for a western which is deeply meditative, loaded with potent metaphor and haunting imagery. Its pacing is beleaguered and its imagery evocative, leaving characters to percolate in their misery and their vices.
Somewhat a strength and a weakness at once, though, is that Sweet Country is a thoroughly masculine film – its artfulness and its attention to details both concrete and abstract are focused intently on how expectations of honour, survival and violence deeply inform the behaviours of more virtuous, but beset-upon, types like Sam and Fred, or the grizzled, embittered men like Harry or lawman Sgt Fletcher (Bryan Brown).
This leaves Lizzie – the only main character truly violated in a horrifying, potent early scene – sidelined almost entirely. She’s more a totem to externalise Sam’s own moral struggles that an entity with thoughts and decisions to make of her own.
It’s a shame to mark the record of a film with this much craft and with so much to say, and it is to the credit of Thornton and his team that the ideas Sweet Country does offer up are well-constructed, propulsive and complex. This is a rich, rewarding western worth revisiting for nourishment both visual and intellectual.
Dir: Warwick Thornton
Scr: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Cast: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Thomas M. Wright, Natassia Gorey Furber
Prd: Greer Simpkin, David Jowsey
DOP: Warwick Thornton
Runtime: 110 mins
Sweet Country is available on Blu Ray, DVD and download in the UK now.