Sweet Country (2017)

Warwick Thornton’s bold and original period Aussie Western Sweet Country contrasts brutal men with a land of spectacular beauty.

Strange Fruit

by Alexa Dalby

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CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Told in fragments that flash forward and back in time, and bit by bit illuminate the linear course of events, Sweet Country is an extraordinary unmissable film set in the 1920s Australian far-north outback. Male settlers are sweaty in the extreme heat, dirty, dusty and dressed in colours that are almost indistinguishable from the baked earth around them. It’s a violent story of raw racism directed against the original owners of the land, the Aborigines, who are now reduced to a pre-American Civil War slave-like dependency on their employers, the colonial owners of the new ‘stations’ in the territory.

Hamilton Morris is superb as Sam Kelly, a dignified Aborigine farm labourer accused of shooting a violent, drunk, abusive white neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie).

Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) flee into the outback, where his traditional skills mean he knows how to live off the land. They’re pursued by a vengeful posse led by Sergeant Fletch (Bryan Brown), ill-equipped to survive in a country and environment that is so alien to them – and in which they are, in effect, aliens.

Sam’s moral superiority asserts itself over the morally bankrupt white men, driven by hatred and a sense of superiority. Even Sam’s employer, the sympathetic, well-meaning pastor (Sam Neill) is ineffectual when he should exert his authority to protect him. Laying the foundations of a church is merely establishing another agent of colonialism.

The only white attempt at fairness is shown in the rough justice of the travelling judge, who presides in his open-air court in the main street (Matt Day), whilst the scaffold is being built alongside.

Cinematography, also by director Warwick Thornton, is stunning, as we see the wide skies, dramatic sunsets, crags and salt flat of the unforgiving land, and the only background sounds are the sounds of the bush. Events are brutal and violent, and there’s a growing sense of creeping dread as they inexorably unfold. Though it’s set in frontier days in the 1920s, hate-filled cruelty and racism persist still and Sweet Country is a powerful indictment of them. It’s searing, sensational cinema.

Sweet Country screened at the 68th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 9 March 2018 in the UK.

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