2018, R, 113 min. Directed by Warwick Thornton. Starring Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris, Thomas M. Wright, Ewen Leslie, Gibson John, Matt Day, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Sam Neill, Anni Finsterer.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 13, 2018
Questions of morality are ever-present in this lyrical Australian Western in which racism, colonialism, and the merits of Western civilization’s influence on indigenous cultures are embedded as fixedly as the dust in the horses’ hooves and loosely sprinkled with every step. The ethical canvas, however, doesn’t get in the way of Sweet Country’s central engaging chase story. Set in northern Australia in 1929, the film looks as though it might be taking place in the mythical American West of the mid-19th century or any isolated and subjugated locale from the more recent past – at least until the startling moment when an outdoor screening of a silent movie about the outlaw Ned Kelly comes to an abrupt halt when a character breaks through the makeshift screen.
Just as that film within a film recounted the acts of a real historical figure, so, too, does the story on which Sweet Country is based. With the fictional name of Sam Kelly (Morris), this figure is an indigenous Australian, loaned out with his wife Lizzie (Gorey-Furber) by the egalitarian preacher (Neill) for whom they work on a frontier outpost to an ill-tempered white man (Leslie) on a nearby outpost to perform a few days of labor. Circumstances eventually cause Sam to shoot the “mad-dog Australian” in self-defense, whereupon Sam and Lizzie go on the run because of the indefensible crime of “shooting a white fella.” Chasing them is Sgt. Fletcher (Brown), who believes in winning justice for the murdered man, but begins to harbor real doubt as to whether justice has indeed been served. Other characters are fleshed out in ways that reveal nuances of racial divisiveness and animus.
Enhancing Sweet Country is the expressiveness of the terrain: dry and hardscrabble, with deserts and rocky plateaus looming in the near distance. Director Thornton (whose debut feature Samson and Delilah won the Camera d’Or at Cannes) also provides this film’s cinematography, a shrewd move since the film’s look is as much an element of the story as any of the characters. One parched and harrowing cross-desert trek is a sequence that should earn a proper place in the annals of cinematic cross-desert treks.
Despite its reliance on some overworked symbolism, the screenplay by David Tranter and Steven McGregor is smart. However, the intercut flash-forwards and flashbacks do little to aid our understanding or appreciation of the story, and seem like artistic frippery. More consistent subtitles for the native speakers might also enhance our understanding of various narrative details. Nevertheless, Sweet Country shows that the Western is a genre of ideas that’s as suitable to modernization in the northern Australian outback as in the ever-changing North American frontier.