Sweet Country – movie review

by Peter Calder / 22 April, 2018

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Sweet Country, an Australian western with Sam Neill, is a searing masterpiece.

The second narrative feature by the man who made Samson & Delilah has some noble ancestors. Like Rolf de Heer’s Tracker in 2002 and Fred Schepisi’s groundbreaking The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1978, it concerns the hunt for an aboriginal murder suspect.

In this age, it may be better received than those two, not least because they were made by white men. And it deserves to: its storytelling, by turns lyrical and blunt, achieves an almost miraculous synthesis of the mythic and the down-to-earth; its cinematography – Warwick Thornton’s own – is spellbinding; and although it occupies a specific time and place, it never allows the viewer the comfort of consigning its injustices to history.

It’s a western of sorts: long sequences in vast expanses owe obvious visual debts to John Ford, in particular his masterpiece The Searchers, and the only song on the soundtrack is by Johnny Cash. But it’s as Australian as a blue gum or a billabong and riveting every dusty step of the way.

Deep in the outback of the Northern Territory in the 1920s, devout Chistian farmer Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is something of an oddball: “We’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord,” he tells a neighbour who asks him where he got his “black stock”, referring to aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). But that doesn’t cut much ice with newcomer Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a plainly damaged, alcoholic veteran of the Great War, who borrows Sam for a couple of days’ work.

In a scene made more harrowing because we can’t see what’s happening, Harry rapes Sam’s wife, although it will take Sam some time to realise this. Following a quite separate act of provocation and plainly in self-defence, Sam guns down his tormentor and goes bush, knowing that the law will offer him no deliverance.

The film’s opening scenes hint at how the chase ends, though it’s a measure of the originality of the script, by feature debutants David Tranter and Steven McGregor, that not one but two twists to Sam’s glum predictions are in store. What happens is less important than how it happens, even if there seems a sickening inevitability about it.

Thornton brings us deep into a world of creaking boot-leather and rough-sawn wood – for a movie of such grit, it’s remarkably sensual – but he also evokes the characters’ internal lives with brief breakouts that seem to tip a wide-brimmed hat to dreamtime stories. And the whole movie is rich in bitter ironies: in one scene, a crowd enjoys an outdoor screening of a new-fangled picture show about a now-legendary bushman and killer whose surname, like Sam’s, is Kelly.

An ill-advised and wincingly obvious final line scarcely detracts from the achievement of a film that won prizes at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a small and searing masterpiece.

IN CINEMAS FROM APRIL 22

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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