Man on the run. Sweet Country is based on the true, Australian story about a point in history where justice was put on trial. For this reason, it has echoes of To Kill A Mockingbird except that here, Atticus Finch isn’t a lawyer but a preacher played by Sam Neill. The result is a shockingly brutal and important film.
This feature is the second one to be directed by Samson and Delilah’s Warwick Thornton. It’s a film that draws its inspiration from a man called Wilaberta Jack. He was an indigenous stockman who shot and killed an abusive white farmer in self-defence in the Northern Territory frontier, during the 1920s.
Hamilton Morris does a fantastic job starring here as Sam Kelly, a character who is based on Jack. Kelly works for Sam Neill’s preacher man, Fred Smith. The latter is a kind fellow who treats his workers with respect and as equals. Kelly lives with his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and two nieces in a shack on Smith’s property. Kelly and Lizzie were taken away from their original tribe and country, just like fellow indigenous stockman Archie (Gibson John).
Harry March (Ewan Leslie) is a retired war veteran with serious anger issues and likely post-traumatic stress disorder. He is a harsh and horrible boss who acts superior to his indigenous workers. He uses corporal punishment and is a violent drunk.
When March is in need of workers, he is loaned a half-caste boy named Philomac (played by twins, Trevon and Tremayne Doolan) by the boy’s father Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright). Philomac steals a watermelon and gets shackled for his misdemeanour by March, so he runs away. A livid March goes looking for the boy and assumes that Kelly is hiding the youngster. March is rude and belligerent as he knocks at Kelly’s door. As March proceeds all guns blazing, Kelly is fearful for both his and his wife’s safety so he shoots March, leading off a catastrophic run of events.
Kelly initially believes it is best to run because he knows he is in a lot of trouble for killing a white fella, despite the fact that it was in self-defence. Bryan Brown plays the chief of police who is seeking revenge. Judge Taylor (Matt Day) meanwhile, attempts to bring some lawfulness to the situation and prevent it all from becoming a kangaroo court after Kelly turns himself in.
This film is a slow-burning one to begin with. Thornton takes his time to develop these rich characters and show the Australian outback for all its beautiful and brutal glory. There is no soundtrack, just dialogue and scenes where it is so quiet that the sounds of footsteps and gunshots are heightened. These serve to amplify the tension in an already dramatic tale that examines the politics, history and morals of an occupied people and the white folk who invaded their land.
Sweet Country is ultimately a nuanced and significant story. It shows the many shades of grey within the ethics and the law of the white man as well as its profound impact and discrimination against our indigenous peoples. A haunting, poetic and visceral tale, it’s hard not to lament the scales being stacked against society’s mockingbirds.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Sweet Country debuts to Australian audiences nationwide 25 January, 2018.