The Australian outback has never looked as sweltering as it does in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. With the director’s latest, he gives an intimate but brutal tale of racism the grand epic western it deserves.
It’s 1920s Northern Australia, where Indigenous Australians are borderline slaves, treated horrendously by the “whitefellas” with degrading punches of casual racism. The hostility towards the Aboriginals are downright uncomfortable, but necessary in confronting its audience with harsh truths, as well as illuminating a time in history that has long been ignored in film. A cruel war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) moves into the area and requires the help of Sam (Hamilton Morris) to renovate his property. With his baseless prejudices, Harry returns Sam’s selflessness with vicious insults and attacks to not only him but his family. When Harry threatens to kill Sam, Sam is forced to shoot his attacker in self defence. However, this being a time of aggressive colonialism, he runs away to avoid the risk of being hanged for killing a “whitefella”.
The film has the feel of classic American westerns. The stunning cinematography (also from Warwick Thornton) captures the desolate openness of the Australian outback but brings a majestic beauty to it as well. It reminded me a lot of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography in Mudbound, in the way that unbearable heat radiates off the frame but still manages to look mesmerisingly beautiful. Sweet Country builds a meaningful relationship between cinematography and character — it captures the capability of heat to reduce someone to desperation, to reduce them to their most primal instincts against all odds.
Sweet Country is upfront in addressing the toxicity of racism, but it also offers glimmers of hope for a better future. Sam Neill plays a kind priest who believes people of all races should be treated equally. In a career populated by gruff, hardened characters, it was nice to see Neill play a more sensitive man. His character could have easily fallen into the white saviour trope, but the film avoids that in favour of being devastatingly honest about Australia’s colonial past. One man won’t save you when it seems like the whole world is against you. The title refers to one of the final lines of the film, as Neill’s character woefully cries out to the world — is there any hope for this country if this is how people act? We’d like to think we’ve made progress since colonialism dominated the globe, but when Aboriginal history has all but been completely erased, have we really?
Sweet Country will be released in the UK on the 9th March 2018 and in the US on the 16th March 2018. You can read the rest of our Glasgow Film Festival coverage here.