As the debate continues about the appropriate date to celebrate our national day, a provocative piece of programming invades our cinemas this Australia Day.
SWEET COUNTRY begins with a close up of a boiling cauldron into which first is placed a black substance, soil, perhaps, followed by a white additive, sugar maybe. The audio is of a confrontation, a fight between men. This simmering commencement is an encapsulation of the themes examined in Warwick Thornton’s expansive film.
Inspired by real events, SWEET COUNTRY is a period western set a decade after the end of the First World War and the year that ushered in the Great Depression, in the magnificent desert landscape of the MacDonnell Ranges around Alice Springs in central Australia.
When Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly kills white shell shocked soldier settler Harry March in self-defence, Sam and his wife Lizzie go on the run. They are pursued by a posse at cross purposes across the outback, through glorious but harsh desert country. Local cop and town sheriff, Sergeant Fletcher leads the posse with the help of Aboriginal tracker Archie and local landowners Fred Smith and Mick Kennedy. Fletcher is desperate to capture Sam and put him on trial for murder but Smith, a more enlightened white man, is keener to uphold natural justice free of ingrained prejudice of white superiority.
Kennedy is somewhere in between.
Sam is an expert bushman and he has little difficulty outlasting and outmanoeuvring the white fella posse, but for the sake of his pregnant wife, Lizzie, Sam decides to surrender. Sam shows a whole lot more compassion for his wife than Fletcher has for his female friend, hotel keeper, Nell.
Compassionate white fella comes in the character of Smith and sets up a conflict between the preacher and the policeman. Fletcher would as soon as put a bullet in the Bible basher as the fugitive Kelly.
Bryan Brown plays the rebarbative copper and Sam Neill the redemptive Smith. Making his feature film debut is Hamilton Morris as Sam Kelly, in a stoic, solid performance. Indeed, the splendid indigenous cast are all feature film debutantes, Natassia Gorey-Furber as Lizzie, Gibson John as Archie, and twins, Tremayne and Trevon Doolan who play the cheeky Philomac.