Thursday 8 March 2018

Sweet Country (Australia 2017: Dir Warwick Thornton)

Based on a true story, Warwick Thornton's tough, uncompromising film about the relationship between indigenous people and white settlers in the rural Australia of 1929 revolves around a small group of people eking out a living in hostile terrain.

Benevolent land owner and preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) loans out two of his Aboriginal workers, husband and wife Sam and Lizzie Kelly (Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey Furber, both excellent) and their niece to help a neighbouring farmer, alcoholic and war traumatised Harry March (Ewen Leslie) for a few days. During this time March rapes Lizzie, a fact she keeps from her husband when they return home.

Smith leaves Sam and Lizzie at his farm while he goes out of town on business, taking their niece with him. A drunken March arrives at Smith's house looking for Philomac (a light fingered mixed race son of another white landowner), who has escaped being chained up. An enraged March fires on the house, and Sam, defending himself, shoots and kills the drunk man. Sam and Lizzie, the latter who is now pregnant with March's child, escape into the Outback and are hunted by the troubled and borderline psychotic police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and a team of vigilantes.

"I think I'm in the family way" confesses Lizzie to Sam at one point in the movie. The phrase sounds strange, but one of the themes of the film is about the need to keep family together whatever the circumstances. The anger and disappointment of Lizzie's revelation, which comes after March's death, never leaves Sam's face from that point on.

One of Sweet Country's greatest strengths is its sense of place, locating a small but endlessly circulating group of characters within the timeless sweeping landscape of the Outback (the title is uttered genuinely in the film, but the reality is anything but). Thornton and the film's writer David Tranter both grew up in central Australia, members of the Kaytej and Alyawarra tribes respectively, which is reflected in the assured use of the film's setting; Thornton also served as Director of Photography. This is a terrain that has featured in Thornton's work before (specifically his 2009 movie Samson and Delilah) and also recalls Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Nic Roeg's Walkabout (1970). Thornton also borrows Roeg's temporal shift approach, giving the audience glimpses of scenes yet to happen, imbuing the film with an eerie feeling of prescience. There are hints of mysticism too: in one scene Sam catches a scorpion under glass, while at the same time Fletcher gets stung by a similar creature (or is it the same one?) hiding in his boot, an incident which triggers the policeman's extended bout of poison fulled mania under the desert sun.

The bleakness of landscape and narrative almost threatens to overwhelm but is saved by some very human performances by Morris and Furber, and also twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, who intriguingly both play Philomac; it's a triumph of casting that all are acting in a feature film for the first time. If there is one criticism it's that the white characters can be little more than cyphers against the indigenous cast, although the inner demons of Harry March and Sergeant Fletcher are given some nuance by Leslie and Brown. Praise too for deciding to render the movie music free, the sounds of the natural world being the only accompaniment to the events onscreen, and for keeping the pacing slow, which accentuates the moments of sudden violence. It's a trick borrowed from the Spaghetti Western, but effective none the less.

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