Nearly nine years after his Camera d’Or winning debut Samson and Delilah, Warwick Thornton has finally followed up his astonishing debut with his Australian western-epic, Sweet Country, starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie and a star making turn from Hamilton Morris.
Set in the Northern Territory during the 1920’s, the film tells the story of Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal man who is forced to go on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natasha Gorey Furber) after shooting a white man in self-defence. He is being chased down by law enforcement and volunteers including the ruthless Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown in career-best form) and Sam’s non-racist, devout Christian boss Fred Smith (Sam Neill).
In the hands of most other filmmaker’s this film would be done in the style of a traditional chase film, but Warwick Thornton is not most other filmmakers. Thornton (also responsible for the cinematography) has an obvious understanding and connection to the Australian outback setting, what we’re seeing isn’t just seeing the camera shooting the Australian landscape. This film is a rare example of where the camera and setting co-exist to one another, playing off each other. It at once feels harsh yet beautiful, vast yet contemplative. Throughout the film Thornton places singular images of memories or events that are yet to happen in the middle of scenes. These flashes are played out in silence, but what’s unclear is if these images are of events that have happened, or events that will happen. Because of this, it keeps the viewer guessing what will happen in a very haunting way as well displaying an intimate insight into a character’s subconscious.
Of course, this film down to the nail is about racism in Australia, a man who’s run away because he assumes that the judicial system will hang him simply for killing a white man. It’s a film about worlds that reject people. While a lot of racist things are said, the images alone should tell us that Sam is a reject in White Australia. Conversely, when the (mostly white) search team enter Aboriginal land, Thornton frames them in a way where it nearly seems the land itself is rejecting them. However, Thornton finds a way through his complete control of the camera to make this feel natural rather than overly manipulative, a very rare feat.
Sweet Country is a landmark in Australian cinema. This level of artistry and pure importance is a rare sight in cinema in general, let alone Australian cinema. It’s a confronting tale of our nation’s awful past while still retaining a poetic nature amongst its epic scale. It’s a film every Australian must experience on the big screen.