Even though he only has a couple of films under his belt, Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton has been slowly becoming one of Australia’s most internationally acclaimed auteurs. After building his career making a few short films and working primary as a in-demand cinematographer, Thornton made the jump to the feature films and made his directing debut with the 2009 Indigenous themed coming-of-age film SAMPSON AND DELILAH. The film became an instant critically acclaimed hit when it screened in competition in the Un Certain Regard section of that year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Caméra d’Or for Best First Feature) and other film festivals around the world. Plus it did surprisingly well at the Aussie box office and went on to win 5 awards at the 2009 Australian Film Institute awards including Best Film and Best Director. Now after a nine-year break working on other projects (directing documentaries, contributing segments for anthology films and more cinematography work), Thornton makes his return to feature length narrative filmmaking with SWEET COUNTRY.
Set in the Northern Territory in 1929, the film tells the story of Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), a middle-aged Aboriginal stockman who works on a farm with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) and niece that’s owned by a compassionate Christian preacher named Fred Smith (Sam Neill). One day they are visited by their neighbour Harry March (Ewan Leslie), a former soldier turned farmer who asks Fred if he can help him with some work at his farm. Since Fred is unable to help due work he has attend to in town, he suggests to Harry that Sam and his family would be happy to help him out for a few days. However a few days later, Sam kills Harry in self-defence and goes on the run into the outback with his wife. Once the news of Harry’s murder reaches town, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) rounds up a posse that includes Fred, local farmer Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) and Aboriginal tracker Archie (Gibson John) to go and find Sam. A few days later, Sam is arrested and immediately put on trail. However during the course of the trail, the truth about what happened during those few days in the lead up to Sam killing Harry comes to light.
I must admit that when I sat down to watch SWEET COUNTRY, I wasn’t sure to expect. I knew very little of the plot before going into it but I was still very intrigued to check it out due to Warwick Thornton’s involvement with it as director. After watching his terrific debut film SAMPSON AND DELILAH back in 2009, it definitely put him on my radar as a filmmaker to watch and I was excited to see what he would tackle next. When I heard that his long waited new narrative film was going to be a western, it definitely peaked my interest for sure. So how did SWEET COUNTRY turn out? Well, I know that what I am about to say is going to sound very hyperbolic but I honesty mean every word of it, I think this film is an absolute masterpiece. Director Warwick Thornton has brilliantly made a truly fantastic and captivating western that absolutely enthralled me as viewer from beginning to end. While another filmmaker probably would have approached it as just another standard western but being a person of indigenous Australian background, Warwick Thornton brings a different perspective to the story that feels both personal and unique.
While on the surface the plot may be pretty simple and straight forward but both Warwick Thornton and screenwriters Steven McGregor & David Tranter’s hands, they use it to make an emotional experience due to the complex, disturbing and sadly still very timely themes that they want to explore within it (the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, racism, prejudice, injustice, violence etc.). Usually when a film explores themes and ideas like this that they can come across as rather heavy-handled or preachy in their execution, luckily both Thornton and the writer take a much more subtle approach so it never feels that way. I even liked the interesting quick use of flashbacks and flash forwards that would appear occasionally during the film. Especially the former, which I thought gave us some quick insights into the characters prior to the events of the story. When it comes to his direction, Thornton did an amazing job with how he crafted the film. He took a rather minimalist approach with his directing style, which I felt made the film a far more compelling watch. Even the fact that he didn’t use any music score at all really elevated the film in a lot of ways for me. Since Thornton is also the cinematographer as well, the film visually looks absolutely stunning and it captures the harshness of the outback beautifully. Plus he also knows how to get really great performances out of his cast too.
In his first major film role, newcomer Hamilton Morris (who had only appear previously in two episodes of the Aussie TV comedy series 8MMM ABORIGINAL RADIO) gave an absolutely terrific performance in the lead role of “Sam Kelly”. I never heard of Morris prior to this film but every time he was onscreen, I was drawn into his quiet but engaging presence. He is very well supported by his legendary co-stars Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, who both equally great in their roles of “Sergeant Fletcher” and “Fred Smith” respectively. They both brought a lot of elements to their characters that I thought made them really compelling to watch throughout the film. Also the supporting cast were all really strong as well but for me personally, the stand out was definitely Ewan Leslie as the damaged but unhinged “Harry March”. Even though he only appears in the first act, his intense performance is very memorable (there is one scene involving him that’s definitely going disturb a lot of people). He could have easily have been a rather two-dimensional monster but both Leslie and the filmmakers bring layers to “Harry” that made him a far more complex and interesting character. Now were there as aspects about the film that I thought didn’t work? Well, other than some of the female characters being a bit under-developed and one heavy-handed line delivered at the end, I don’t have many problems with it to be honest. I would dare to say that the film is actually near flawless to me.
Overall while it is very rare to find a film that most people would consider near or even absolutely perfect these days but for me personally, I honestly think that SWEET COUNTRY is definitely in fact one of those rare films. Even though we’re only very early into this year, I’m very comfortable to say that SWEET COUNTRY is without a doubt the first truly great film of 2018 and one that I can see making my top 10 best films list by the end of this year. It’s an absolutely powerful and stunning western that definitely ranks up there as one of the best Aussie films released so far in the decade. Director Warwick Thornton made something truly special with this film, and I highly recommended everyone to check it out. Believe me, this one film that’s going to stay with you long after you have watched it.
Review by Bede Jermyn