Brutal Aboriginal fable in the postwar outback



Sweet Country (MA). Director: Warwick Thornton. Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie, Sam Neill, Natassia Gorey Furber, Matt Day, Thomas M. Wright, Gibson John. 113 minutes

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet CountryAside from being a one of Australia's great working directors, Warwick Thornton is a gifted and prolific cinematographer, including on his own films. In Sweet Country he exercises his visual mastery to its fullest, utilising framing and composition, light, shade and colour to explicate his themes and elevate a straightforward story of outback brutality and racial prejudice to the proportions of myth.

Consider a scene where wizened copper Sergeant Fletcher (Brown) sidles into town after a failed pursuit of a fugitive that has carried him through unforgiving terrain for several weeks. The townspeople are gathered in front of the pub watching the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang projected on a bedsheet. Fletcher pauses between projector and sheet, and the Kellys' exploits flicker upon his harried face.

Before long, Fletcher will fling the sheet aside, reproach the people for revelling in the outlaws' antics while his own righteous hunt has come to nought. But before he does, he stands a moment inside the pub, framed by Thornton in such a way that the sheet, with its projections of that seminal Australian myth, fills the doorway behind him. 'I couldn't get him,' keens the would-be Francis Hare.

Fletcher's elusive quarry is Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Morris), wanted for the murder of Harry March (Leslie). March, one of three cattle station owners in the area, is shown in the film's first act to be a psychologically damaged veteran of the First World War (the film takes place in 1929), prone to drunkenness and late-night drills with his firearm. Prone also, it seems, to the rape and torture of 'blackstock'.

Violence is a mainstay here but not an inevitability. March's fellow rancher Kennedy (Wright) is shown to whip Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), a young black boy who works for him and who may be his son. But Fred Smith (Neill), for whom Sam works, is mild and pacifistic. Prior to, fatefully, loaning Sam, his wife and niece to March for a day's work, he insists: 'We're all equal here ... in the eyes of the Lord.'

With scarce music, the film relies on sound and lighting to build suspense. March sends Sam off to muster cattle, and winds up alone in his shack with Sam's wife, Lizzie (Furber). The camera tracks him as he methodically shutters each window; shreds of sunlight hang in the darkness from the gaps in the boards. The impact on the viewer is more dreadful than if the rape had been shown graphically.


"You're not paying attention if you expect a happy ending."


It is not quite the catalyst, but the incident does eventually lead to a standoff in which Sam slays March. He and Lizzie take flight, with a party including Fletcher, Smith ('to make sure you bring him back alive'), Jenkins and Archie (John), an aged Aboriginal stockman, on their tail. But this is Sam's country, and as the white men labour, he moves freely, often watching from a distance as they make their pursuit.

More myth-making by Thornton: weeks have passed, the search party has dwindled, and Fletcher finds himself alone, scorpion-stung and waterless on a vast salt plain. Thornton's long shots emphasise the massive flatness; the lone horseman a wilting speck upon it. Only after Fletcher collapses does Sam appear, descending upon him as if from the sun. He gives water to his dying foe, and disappears.

Sam's compassion provides a contrast to Fletcher's brute legalism. More than once he has the opportunity to kill Fletcher or let him die, and chooses mercy. There is violence in him: at one point he raises a fist to his wife; though he does not strike her, it's the only time we cannot sympathise with him. Yet for the most part he resists the urge to aggression, one of the few men in the film who does.

Sweet Country is very interested in violence: the social and human conditions that produce it; the systems that permit it, including racial discrimination; its ties to a particular frontier-Australian conception of masculinity. When Sam does return to face the Law, it is thankfully represented to him by an admirably evenhanded judge (Day). The alternative is the gallows, and Fletcher would love to see him hang.

It is also interested in perspectives on how to exist as an Aboriginal in an Australia ruled by white men. It contrasts Sam, with his respect for lore, and for individual and cultural identity, with Archie, who in desperate self-preservation has submitted to the conquering class. Philomac, after playing a pivotal role in the events leading up to March's death, becomes a receptacle for these alternative points of view.

You're not paying attention if you expect a happy ending. Thornton litters the film with flashbacks and flash-forwards — fleeting and stripped of sound. The former reveal hidden truths about characters, while the latter hint at their fate. Within the fabric of the story the flash-forwards — the image of a bloodied face, or of a rope quivering against a washed-out blue sky — elicit a sense that it is all predetermined.

Yet on reflection, from a modern standpoint, we realise this is historical fiction, and that history hasn't yet ended. Systemic violence and oppression of Australia's First Peoples is ongoing, embedded in policy and to a terrifying extent in popular consciousness. Thus the film's ending comes as a shock without being shocking, and is sad less in a personalised than in a general sense. What has changed?



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Warwick Thornton, Sweet Country, Aboriginal Australians, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie



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Existing comments

I agree with your review, Tim, except that I'm torn about the ending. Do we accept Sam Neill's words as the final judgement? Or are the rainbow and the Cash voice singing "Peace in the Valley" to give us hope for our country? Or it's in the balance and over to us?

mary ellen | 31 January 2018  

Thank you Tim Kroenert. I enjoyed reading your article and appreciate your insights about the film and about the history. But I was surprised by your sentence.... 'a straightforward story of outback brutality and racial prejudice' what makes one call a story of outback brutality 'straightforward?' Perhaps that is why your question at the end: what has changed, and the film conclusions seem to point to more of the same to come. Because our attitudes of permissiveness towards violence on a personal and on a social (and global) levels all seem straightforward? Thank you for your writing. Keep them coming Antonina

Antonina | 01 February 2018  

Thanks Tim for articulating your understanding of the narrative in this film. I was in a packed theatre when I saw it and was surprised at how many people in the audience came and went through-out the film. It was obviously very unsettling for some and I wondered if the title of the film had invited them in to see ... a "sweet" country? There were so many contradictions and paradoxes through-out the film ... Warwick Thornton is brilliant in not letting anyone off the hook in relation to our Indigenous history. Your comment: "Thus the film's ending comes as a shock without being shocking, and is sad less in a personalised than in a general sense. What has changed?" ... suggests that, because 'the story that was elicited feels pre-determined', it is perhaps less shocking and personally less sad. I disagree ... it was both shocking and devastating (but one I gut-wrenchingly expected). All that people talked about after the film (when exiting the theatre) was - who shot Sam? Both Sam Neill's comment "What hope do we have?" whilst in the frame of looming dark skies and a magnificent partial rainbow - evokes symbolism that said it all really. Paradox right there! Yet surely the hope resides in both the story and the telling of it ... thank you to Warwick Thornton for his courage to do so. After all, not everyone walked out of the theatre!

Mary Tehan | 01 February 2018  

I saw Sweet Country at the Adelaide film festival a while back in company with an Aboriginal woman Elder - a Traditional Owner from the SA bush. My friend found the film a wrenching experience which she would have preferred not to go through:'I've lived through all of that and I don't want to see it again on film.' As for myself at the finale I couldn't stop myself from saying (softly) out loud, "As if that wouldn't happen!" Of course it would. Warwick Thornton and most of the film cast were on stage after the film. Warwick Thornton explained to someone who wanted to query ' Who did it' - If we knew, it let's the rest of us off the hook. As you Tim are alluding to.We can easily blame that particular person. I guess it's well known that the film is based on a factual incident concerning the judge's ruling. The acting is superb. As W T said but how plain it is - the Country itself is a very main actor. The SA film maker Scott Hicks speaks so highly of WT as a superb filmmaker/cinematographer. We could only agree.

Michele Madigan | 01 February 2018  

An instructive review of an important film, Tim. My only reservation on the authenticity of the characters and events portrayed was the over-use and anachronism of the 'f-word' in the dialogue.

John | 01 March 2018  

In 1927, white NW Australian pastoral identity drags a black woman to his camp, and rapes her. Quite commonplace so far. Her husband comes to rescue her, stabs rapist. Police and pastoralists organise massive reprisals against a whole tribe and moiety. Google Forrest River Massacre, piling up logs to cremate the living and the dead. Check out the consequent Royal Commission in Perth, a whitefella whitewash. Into the 1970s, an electorally bent Upper House majority of Right Wing parties that, names changed, are now The Coalition, prevented publication of its proceedings, findings, and list of "alleged" (yeah, sure) perpetrators, a Reactionaries' Who's Who. Nobody was prosecuted.

james marchment | 27 March 2018  

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