Middle-aged farm hand Sam (Hamilton Morris) lives a quiet life in Australia’s Northern Territory. However, after killing a man in self-defence following a confrontation, he’s forced to flee with wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) into the Outback, pursued by an unforgiving policeman and his posse.
A major prize winner on the indie circuit last year with a narrative based on true events and with a lot to say about Australian society, Sweet Country should have been unforgettable. And a lot of it is. Engaging and brutal in equal parts, the plot recounts true events from the Northern Territory in the 1920s involving an Indigenous man tried unjustly for murder. From the outset we see the fraught dynamics of Australia’s past playing out onscreen. White farmers treat Indigenous stockmen and farmhands with casual disdain and violence, to our shock and disgust. This is nothing new in the scale of Australian cinema. But we also see a fascinating undercurrent of violence and distrust between Indigenous peoples – the stock hands barely trust or even like one another.
Archie (Gibson John), the main farmhand to a support character (Tom Wright), is a particularly interesting case. From the outset he’s painted as being on the outside of both White Australian and Indigenous life. His institutionalisation into mainstream Australian culture (revealed in a sad reprimand to fellow farmhand Philomac in the middle of the film) shows his now inherent distrust of his own people. He is the first to claim protagonist Sam is a murderer and abuses Philomac throughout. Sweet Country also makes several interesting points about a civilised/Outback divide. The Indigenous groups seen in the Outback are wild unnamed savages who kill first and shout wildly second. They’re not people, just threats for our characters to deal with – making a statement about the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality rife in Australian history.
But as engaging as the screenplay is, as brutal the political commentary, its failure is in timing and character development. While Hamilton Morris shines as the morose Sam and the rest of the Indigenous cast do an amazing job, much of the plot and characterisation takes place on fast forward to fit a 113-minute screen time. The hunt for Sam and Lizzie is done frantically, with characters dropping off rapidly, the entire section rushed to get us to the trial. Ultimately, this middle segment could have cut some sections to make room for greater character building, especially for policeman Sergeant Fletcher (revered Aussie actor Bryan Brown). Despite his attempts, I was consciously aware I was watching a device to advance the plot rather than a real person fight for what he called justice. Sam Neill’s role to sell the movie to a wider audience, meanwhile, is something done better than making his thin character Fred Smith memorable.
But despite these quibbles, Sweet Country is still deserving of its place in Australian film canon. Beautifully shot and armed with an unexpected ending, more time would have delivered a an even better work.
A fascinating story and brutal reminder of Australia’s darker past, the film has a lot to say but not enough time to say it. Sweet Country needed to take its sweet time. 6/10.