A scene from the bleak Australian western Sweet Country.
A scene from the bleak Australian western Sweet Country.

MOVIE REVIEW: Mesmerising tale of outback injustice

SET in the Northern Territory in the 1920s, this frontier western might be viewed as a companion piece to director Warwick Thornton's award-winning 2009 feature film debut, Samson & Delilah, which featured a contemporary indigenous couple.

While the period drama is more conventionally structured than its groundbreaking predecessor, it packs a similarly hefty emotional wallop.

And the ending ripples out across the decades, all the way to recent events at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

According the film's promotional material, Sweet Country puts justice itself on trial.

But while there is a makeshift, outdoor hearing - there is no church in this godforsaken town and Matt Day's boyish judge refuses to hold proceedings in the local bar - this is no courtroom drama.

It's the characters' actions that hold them accountable.

For the most part, the whitefella roles are uncomfortably familiar (not to mention the actors who play them).

Sam Neill is Fred Smith, a bumbling but essentially decent preacher who ekes out a living on a hardscrabble plot of land with stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) and her niece.

Trouble soon arrives in the form of war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a particularly nasty piece of work.

Against his better instincts, Smith "lends" Sam and Lizzie to his new neighbour because it's the Christian thing to do.

March rapes Lizzie and humiliates Kelly.

A few days later, in pursuit of a runaway teenage employee (jointly played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), March confronts Kelly with a rifle.

The expert bushman shoots him in self defence.

Knowing there is no justice in Australia for a blackfella who shoots a white man, no matter what the circumstances, Kelly and Lizzie go on the run.

Bryan Brown's hardman sergeant pursues them with a zealousness that tips over into obsession.

 

Hamilton Morris is mesmerising as stockman Sam Kelly in Sweet Country.
Hamilton Morris is mesmerising as stockman Sam Kelly in Sweet Country.

 

The authority figures in Sweet Country are such established types, even seasoned actors such as Neill and Brown can't fully transcend them.

It's the indigenous cast, many of them non actors, who take the film to another level.

Morris is mesmerising in the role of Kelly, a man of actions rather than words.

And the Doolan brothers nail the impassive, opportunistic Philomac.

Sweet Country plays out against the distinctive backdrop of the Australian Outback.

Through Thornton's lens - the director shot the film in conjunction with his son Dylan River - movie goers see the well-travelled cinematic landscape afresh.

The scene in which the Kelly and his pregnant wife navigate a dry riverbed is extremely potent.

As is the strange showdown, on an iconic salt lake, between the wanted man and Brown's Sergeant Fletcher.

A powerful and sobering drama based on real events.

Sweet Country opens on Thursday.

 

SWEET COUNTRY (MA15+)

Four stars

Director: Warwick Thornton

Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill

Verdict: See it and weep



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