Sweet Country

Having received poison-pen letters for bagging Samson and Delilah (2009), I approached Warwick Thornton’s new film with trepidation – nobody wants to be branded a redneck by those who really care. This time out Thornton has nailed it with a gut-wrenching account of white Australia’s prejudice and cruelty towards the Indigenous owners of the land while at no point allowing diatribe to overwhelm story. Set in the red-earth outback following WWI, it begins with the blackfella Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) sitting outdoors before a magistrate after being locked up by the local copper (Bryan Brown) for shooting a whitefella, the station manager Harry March (Ewen Leslie). The bloody events that led to that moment are then traced step by step. Sam has been egregiously wronged (as have all his mob), but Thornton manages to find in his heart an explanation, if not an excuse, for March’s hateful behaviour, attributing it to the psychological damage that was done to him on the Western Front. His neighbour Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), however, and the boozers at the pub are portrayed as the racists who built our nation and, to some extent, still run it. Notwithstanding the gritty performances of Brown, Sam Neill, Matt Day and the cast of professional actors, the movie belongs to Morris, Gibson John, the two boys who play Philomac, through whose eyes the killing is seen, Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, and Natassia Gorey Furber as Sam’s wife Lizzie. The relentlessness of circumstance and blind fate provoke anger then fury in the viewer as Sam is hounded by his vengeful ‘masters’, but for mine the most heartbreaking scene comes when Lizzie is called to give her evidence – I can’t remember being so moved and made so painfully aware of the devastation we have brought to the ‘sweet country’. It feels throughout like it’s taking place in the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century, but the cinematography (Thornton and Dylan River) is beautiful and the script is as tight as a nut. Provocative, tragic and discomfiting – a must see.

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