Sweet Country is a sometimes scorchingly powerful drama featuring fine work from a sweaty cast, astonishing Alice Springs locations and a palpable sense of quiet sadness – and anger – sure to move any audience.
Director (and director of photography) Warwick Thornton’s first feature film since the underrated The Darkside in 2013 is again part-funded by the Adelaide Film Festival. It’s drawn by screenwriters Steven McGregor and David Tranter from the basic facts of a true story, although they’ve been opened out into something far more complex, haunting and even, at times, horrifying.
Somewhere in the Northern Territory in the 1920s we’re introduced to Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris in his first film), an indigenous farmer living with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and niece Lucy (Shanika Cole) on land owned by his friend Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a kind, religious man who believes in equality. A boozy, profoundly messed-up former soldier, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), has moved in nearby. He arranges for Sam to help him set up his property, while Thornton shows us mysterious, privileged flashbacks (and later foreshadowings) warning of just how dangerous Harry is.
After Harry forces himself onto Lizzie in a sequence where we see nothing but a black screen, he later flies into rage obviously influenced by his PTSD and comes in search of young Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Tremon Doolan), a lad he believes stole his watch, and Sam is forced to shoot him in self-defense. He then flees, which might seem the actions of a guilty man, which he isn’t, but he knows full well that he’ll never be granted a fair trial.
Sam and Lizzie are pursued into sacred, tribal land by a group that includes Fred, local Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) and Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown in another of his terrific older-and-wiser performances). They’re led by tracker Archie (Gibson John) in a midsection that naturally reminds us, just slightly, of Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker. But here Thornton and his screenwriters have the characters face considerably more than just each other.
Summoning some of the energy and spirit of Fred Schepisi’s The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (and just perhaps offering a visual reference to Norman Lindsay’s Ned Kelly painting series), this is blessed by Brown and Neill in elder-statesman-type roles and grounded by Morris, who says little, but instead offers a masterclass in stillness. And what a beautiful – and terrifying – landscape that ‘sweet country’ is.
Rated MA. Sweet Country is in cinemas now.