Sweet Country is one of those rare films that slides between a few genres without feeling obnoxious in the way that it chooses to do so. It starts out as a racially tinged social picture, 1920s white Australians trying to figure out between themselves their relationship to their aboriginal peoples with whom they share their country. Treading on each other’s toes as they try to navigate each other’s levels of racial resentment while the aboriginal diaspora around do their best to work with, or for, or around the white folk peacefully.
Then we hit the first tipping point. When in self defence Sam, played by Hamilton Morris shoots the white man threatening his life. Assured of the blowback that’s coming his way they run and for a while it turns into a chase movie with Bryan Brown as the county’s law enforcer Sergeant Fletcher and a ragtag team of local men head out into the deadly outback in an ill advised attempt to track the fugitives.
After that, the machinery of the plot pushes the fugitives back into the town, there to face trial for the alleged crime. The film ends as a courtroom drama. Matt Day is the judge who presides over the proceedings that happen in deck chairs on the town’s dusty high street as no erected building is large enough to be used as a courthouse.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by laying this progression out, it’s all pretty clear from the trailer. Hell even it’s opening shots will give away the ending. The first two things we see are a flashback and a flashforward. In a film that lays itself down so simply its approach to time is the one thing that stands out as a flare from the filmmaker. A striking point to be made about the destructive and inevitable outcomes of what happens when we act this way.
It’s not even flashbacks really for the most part. He seems to be adopting a style that we saw used earlier this year in Stéphane Brizé’s Une Vie. While scenes are being carried out they’ll be interrupted with video happening somewhen else. Like, Brizé’s style this often comes in the form of a flash to inform us quickly of relationship, or of memory. But while he points his lens backward to focus on her cast’s regrets and reminiscences Warwick Thornton gazes forward at the grim future that these characters be marching towards.
Like, early on, not too much long after getting introduced to a character the film just lets us know that he’s going to be dead later on. A quick little glimpse of the corpse he is going to leave then it continues on its way. There’s no comment to this, no exclamation, it is just natural that this guy is going to die so why not now? Makes it didactic in its own way, moralistic slightly but then the whole is just is.
We just examining these people and their relationship to their country. Many of them fought for the British against the county’s natives, many of them are so far along in their citizenship that they don’t got too much love for the British neither. The film looks and feels proudly western even as it traipses across its varied tones. It captures some of that, the sense of a world on the brink of change knowing that the transition out will be unpleasant.
Thornton working as both director and cinematographer grew up in Alice Springs, pretty much where civilisation ends in the East before you get to the outback that covers most West Australia. He has this eye for the country, its nature, the expanse, the peaks and valleys. For someone who only really has experience in American Westerns the landscape feels a little wrong, almost alien.
Which gives the dude an opportunity to define what these places mean in an Australian context. He gives it a better one, for years tales of the American West have been stuck recasting the parables of its past, interrogating the prejudices that were put there. Sweet Country is a step in building a western tradition that centres the natives from the start, respects their identity in these times.
To that end Hamilton Morris is a great lead, embodying a weary guarded humanity. He’s accompanied by Natassia Gorey-Furber as his wife Lizzie and Gibson John who portrays a kept man, Archie. These are all relatively new actors and yet they come to hold their places with tact and resolve. It would be easy I guess to fall into the trap of the audience’s pity but these portrayals are uncompromising. Sam Neill is also here, doing the slightly irascible but incredibly decent act that he’s been great at these recent years. He manages, admittedly with the script’s help to steer into the clear a character who could feel pretty white saviour.
But as well as all these, and all this drama, the joint is invested and involved of the life of the town. This life that exists on the edges of our plot that we see glanced in the sidelines as our leads go about their business. The film ain’t often too subtle, it know what it wants to say and isn’t ashamed to put it out there, but what makes it work is its commitment to life. It captures that just perfectly.
Sweet Country is currently screening in UK cinemas.