Directed by Warwick Thornton
Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter
Starring Hamilton Morris, Ewen Leslie, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Matt Day, Gibson John, Thomas M. Wright
BFI London Film Festival Review by Chris Olson
A morality western that tackles justice and prejudice, Sweet Country had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2017. The director, Warwick Thornton, introduced the film to an enthusiastic audience who quickly fell under the mesmeric spell of this daunting drama.
Set amongst the isolated cattle ranches and farms of an isolated Austrailian outback settlement, Sam Neill plays a holy ranch owner who is approached by a local land owner called Harry (Ewen Leslie) from a neighbouring farm, who asks him for help in some tasks around his buildings and lands. Initially referring to the help as "black stock", Harry quickly establishes himself as a rather brutal and despicable character, who treats Sam (Hamilton Morris) with discourtesy and then proceeds to perform an injustice on Sam's partner (Natassia Gorey Furber). After a few more plot developments, Sam ends up taking Harry's life and a cat and mouse chase takes place across the outback setting, with the gang of white lawmen and landowners giving chase to Sam and his wife, a black couple.
Loaded with social inequality themes, Sweet Country makes its point without much subtlety. Issues of race and male domination are at the forefront of the story, using the frontier setting to give credence to such archaic stereotypes. The power balance throughout the film is invariably with white males and this is something the filmmaking parallels. The dialogue is given largely to the white characters, the black characters often require subtitles, and the female characters (of which there are few) have barely a handful of lines between them. All this creates an uncomfortable atmosphere for the story to unfold in, and is ultimately a drama tragedy. Only a few sequences are offered up to break the bleakness, such as the kleptomania of Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) or Neill giving a knee-slapping rendition of a religious song that sounded more like a football hooligan's chant.
It's a movie that utilises the barren landscape to enhance the sense of insurmountable isolation. Sam's penchant for eluding the authorities aside, the audience never feels like it will end well for this character because the filmmakers have stacked the odds against him too formidably. This regrettably depressing state of affairs is affirmed by the few moral characters who seem totally withered by the inescapably harsh reality of the land they occupy.
The film is a little oddly plotted and the characters have a tendency to merge into incoherent blurs at times, but the overall impact of Sweet Country is one of impossible struggle not unbelievable heroics. It's a sad truth that in 2017 we still need a film like this.
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