"What chance has this country got?" asks Sam Neill in Sweet Country's final moments. Such is the film's central theme as it examines Australia's sordid racial past and brings its concerns into the present with a film that is as tragic as it is strikingly beautiful.
Set in the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, Sweet Country tells the story of an aboriginal farmhand, Sam Kelly. Working for kind-hearted farmer Fred Smith (Neill), he is "lent" to a neighbouring farmer who is new to the area and in need of an extra hand. Unfortunately, the neighbourly gesture goes sour when the new farmer proves to be an unhinged war veteran and Sam finds himself unwittingly complicit in a provoked act of deadly violence. As the local authority, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse, set about hunting Sam down, Sweet Country takes the opportunity to play cute with a few Western genre tropes; however it never loses sight of its charged racial commentary.
Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) confidently struts a visual approach that avoids the temptation to use an emotive musical score. Thornton's camera slowly, but intently, prowls the landscape with a quiet tension that heightens a sense of dread. He's done a stunning job capturing Australia's picturesque outback, pitting its beauty against the ugliness of the denizens who run amok within.
Down-under stalwarts Brown and Neill are typically good, and although they provide the film's star pulling power, the real heavy lifting is provided by its aboriginal cast, specifically Hamilton Morris who superbly encapsulates Sam's heart-breaking anguish, fear and frustration.
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Sweet Country provides little in the way of relief to its oppressive tone, but this cautionary tale is skilfully told with a brutal eloquence and should really be considered mandatory viewing.
Cast: Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris
Director: Warwick Thornton
Running time: 110 mins
Rating: R16 (Violence, Sexual Violence, Offensive Language & content that may disturb )