Directed by Warwick Thornton, Sweet Country is a brutal but piercingly moral film set in the Australian outback some time after the first world war. Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) lives with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) on a farm run by preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Sam, Lizzie, and their niece Lucy are Aboriginal, but they live in harmony with Smith, as all of God’s creations are equal in his eyes. However, it does not take long for the film to establish this as a minority opinion.
A new landowner turns up at their farm, Harry March (played with a real biting menace by Ewen Leslie), requesting assistance in setting-up his land. Sam helps him, but not long after, March, a virulent racist, becomes enraged by a supposed theft, which leads him, rifle in hand, to where the Kellys are sleeping. Sam defends himself, and shoots March dead. Sam and Lizzie go on the run; it’s of little import that he acted purely out of self-defence, for what does the truth matter in societies dominated by the intolerant?
This is the question taken up Sweet Country, and it provides a searing and immutable answer. This is partially due to the heart of the drama itself, which is nuanced and substantive, and partially due to the despondent, sorrowful mood created by Thornton’s camera. Thornton (who is also the film’s cinematographer) creates compositions of a superbly unexpected nature: deliberately off-centre framing, strangely angled shots reordering the supposed hierarchy of power, and a beautifully-judged dolly-zoom which announces the arrival of a conclusive narrative event.
Most scenes are punctuated by, well, I’m not actually sure what to term them. Some are definitely flashbacks, some are definitely awful adumbrations of what’s to follow; but some exist in defiance of either category. We seem to have drifted, as an audience, into one of the characters’ minds: we seem to see what one or a number of the players will not say out loud, and we seem to see what they fear, or desire, most. These moments play out with no diegetic sound, so we only hear what is audible in the scene being interrupted. The effect is that of visualising a feeling suspended in time, and it is truly haunting.
Hamilton Morris’s performance as Sam is a case study in grace against adversity: the film’s acute but sharp critique of racism is substantiated by his stoicism, his outwitting of those chasing him, and by his final (heartrending) line of dialogue. Gorey Furber and Neill are fine support, but there’s one misstep. Bryan Brown, as Sergeant Fletcher, the officer in charge of the chase, is a slightly under-written and obvious role, which detracts (only slightly) from the strength of the film’s ending.
Sweet Country is a subtle, insightful, and powerful piece of cinema.
Image: Thunderbird Releasing