Sweet Country, 2017.
Directed by Warwick Thornton
Starring Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris, Matt Day, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, and Ewen Leslie.
In the Northern Territory frontier of Australia in 1920, an Aboriginal farmhand is left in charge of a property while his boss is away. But he shoots a white man in self-defence and, believing he has no chance of justice, goes on the run. A posse, with a determined local sergeant at its head, is soon on his tail.
Sweet Country opens with an image that brands itself on your brain. A close-up of billy tea bubbling in the pot. More leaves are added to the water, then two handfuls of sugar and it bubbles up again. In itself, the image is innocuous, but what you can hear isn’t. Shouts, swearing, blows, beatings, cries of pain. Then it stops abruptly. You never see what’s been happening and you don’t need to.
Warwick Thornton’s Australian western is set in the 1920s when, in the Northern Territories, horses were the most popular means of transport, there were ranches in the middle of nowhere raising cattle and the owners had what was known as blackstock – Aboriginal slaves. They’re treated badly, talked to as if they were idiots, made to sleep with the animals and fed very little. With one exception. Deeply religious Fred Smith (Sam Neill) works hard to treat everybody as an equal, including his Aboriginal servant, Sam (Hamilton Morris), his wife and their niece. They’re an integral part of the business, he shares with meals with them and he trusts them to look after things when he’s away. But he’s one in a million.
When Fred helps out new neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie) by sending Sam and his family to work for him for a couple of days, he comes to regret it. They’re treated badly and more happens than either Fred or Sam realise until later. And when a drunk, belligerent Harry comes calling days later, Sam shoots him in self-defence and goes on the run. He hardly needs to be told “You’ve shot a white fella. You in big trouble now.” Hunted by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and some local men, including Fred, he eventually gives himself up and has to put himself in the hands of Australian justice.
So deep-rooted is the racism we’ve already witnessed, that his chances of a fair trial are somewhere between slim and zero. And there are echoes of the court scenes and overall themes of To Kill a Mockingbird, even if Judge Taylor (Matt Day) asks all the questions and delivers the verdict. The court itself is set up in the open air, outside the local hotel, complete with deckchairs for people to sit in – and, ironically, the layout is exactly the same as an outdoor film screening several nights previously. The “entertainment” on that occasion was a silent movie about outlaw Ned Kelly.
Sweet Country tells its story slowly and deliberately, at a pace dictated by the blistering sun of Australia’s red centre. Director Warwick Thornton is also in charge of the photography and gives us a portrait of an unforgiving land, a harsh one that’s difficult to survive in but one that has its own beauty: the sunrises and sunsets are especially stunning, but so are the barren expanses and the ever-present eucalyptus trees. Remarkably, this is also a film without a musical soundtrack, a deliberate decision on Thornton’s part. Instead, it’s all about the natural background noises – flies and crickets, the rustling of the long grass, the occasional thunderstorm. It intensifies the heat radiating off the screen so that you can almost smell the sweat.
He also gets excellent performances from his cast, especially Hamilton Morris and Sam Neill. This may be a slow burner, but that’s part of its power as an indictment of the treatment of the Aboriginals. Its deep-rooted anger is never far from the surface, making it an intense and frequently uncomfortable watch. Just like that opening image.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.