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Brutal Aboriginal fable in the postwar outback

  • 31 January 2018


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

Aside 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