VOD film review: Sweet Country
James R | On 16, Aug 2020
Director: Warwick Thornton
Cast: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill
“What chance does this country have?” asks someone in Sweet Country, a film set in 1929 Australia but rings with a universal pertinence. It joins an impressive, biting ensemble of Australian Westerns, which take the genre’s frontier backdrop and uses it to explore social divisions, colonial tensions and questions of identity and history.
The film introduces us to Sam Kelly, a middle-aged Aboroginal farm worker in Australia’s Northern Territory, who works for Fred (Sam Neill), a kindly ranch owner who believes in equality and abhors notions of slavery. Not so Harry March (Top of the Lake’s Ewen Leslie), who takes Sam and his wife, Lizzie, to work on his own farm. A horrific encounter later and Sam ends up killing Harry in self-defence – an act that leads him and Lizzie to go on the run across the outback.
Hunting them down is a host of white military men, who aim to bring Sam to supposed justice. What follows is a scathing, shocking story of inequality, prejudice and exploitation. Director Warwick Thornton films it all with a beautiful eye for the harsh landscape that’s just as unwelcoming and hostile to Sam and Lizzie as the civilisation that supposedly includes them. Even the concept of the law becomes a cruel mockery, as we watch the erection and imposition of a social system – symbolised by the creation of a local church – that is already biased against the people who lived there first.
The cast are uniformly brilliant, able to balance the odd stab of dark humour with the downbeat nastiness, as ideologies and experiences clash violently together. The result is a brutally tragic Western that still resonates years later. A powerful piece of revisionist cinema that, most brutally of all, is inspired by true events.