After the international acclaim that (quite rightfully) came his way upon the release of Samson and Delilah in 2009, any subsequent directorial outing for Warwick Thornton was always going to garner plenty of interest, both from those desperate to declare his debut a mere fluke and from those genuinely excited to see what he would do next. Perhaps not surprisingly, with Sweet Country Thornton again explores the Aboriginal experience, although this time he tackles the issue from a historical perspective. Set in the Northern Territory in the 1920’s where Aboriginal people are subjected to overt racism and mistreatment – including cruelty and acts of violence – at the hands of the white farmers for whom they toil, Thornton has gathered a strong cast that includes Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Matt Day and Ewen Leslie, but it is the non-professional Hamilton Morris around whom the action revolves as Sam Kelly, an Aboriginal man who finds himself at the mercy of white justice following an incident that left another man dead.
The first section of the film requires considerable focus from the audience as three remote cattle stations and their owners are introduced in quick succession. Fred Smith (Neill) is a devout Christian rancher who has developed a strong friendship with Kelly, who works as the head stockman on Smith’s property. On a neighbouring station, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) is more of a tyrant in his relationship with his indigenous workers, often unleashing on them for the most minor indiscretions, his violence masking the loneliness that such isolation invariably brings. As repulsive as Kennedy’s behaviour is, he is moderate in his malevolence when compared to newly arrived rancher Harry March (Leslie) who relies on alcohol to cope with the trauma of his experiences in World War 1 that continue to haunt him. With no workers of his own, March approaches Smith with a request to borrow some ‘black stock’ to help set-up his property. Kelly and his wife Lizzie are dispatched to assist, however Harry’s racist, sadistic treatment towards Kelly and other workers he has secured from Kennedy – including an act of sexual violence against Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) – results in Sam and Lizzie returning home. When Harry tracks them down, more violence ensues and Sam now finds himself on the run from weathered Police Chief Sergeant Fletcher (Brown).
Whilst this is just one story, it is a powerful window into the terrible cost for Aboriginal people at the hand of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As Sam and Lizzie roam the outback, their Western dress and pidgin English makes them foreigners to the other native Australians they encounter along the way, yet they have also been rejected by the community that is taking away their land, their health and their rights. This is muscular storytelling but lacks the nuance and subtlety and, dare I say, the emotional power of Thornton’s previous film. Sure, it reminds us of what so many of the Aboriginal population had to endure through this shameful period of history, but I can’t help but feel as though Thornton is preaching to the converted.
Thornton also served as cinematographer, as he did on Samson and Delilah and projects for other filmmakers such as Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1988) and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) and this is definitely where his strength lies because this looks fabulous, capturing the brutality and beauty of the Australian outback in equal measure. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, Sweet Country is a simple, yet powerful story in which small traces of humanity emerge from amidst the hostility and hardship that permeates the desolate Australian outback.