A look at Sweet Country (MA 15+)
For a filmgoer who lists westerns as one of his favourite genres the lure of an Australian western set in the scrublands west of Alice Springs was irresistible.
There’s vast tracts of land in the Aussie outback as most people know but when you’re on the run there doesn’t seem anywhere special to hide, even though there seems to be plenty of space.
And so it is for Sam Kelly, an Aboriginal stockman, wanted for shooting a white neighbour.
To understand why Sam (Hamilton Morris) is the most wanted man in the Northern Territory we need to know the back story.
It’s 1929 – admittedly, fairly late in time for a Western – and Sam works for a deeply religious Christian cattleman Fred Smith (Sam Neill).
When World War 1 veteran Harry March arrives in the district to take over his own cattle run Smith agrees to let Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) work for March for a short time as he settles in.
Smith has to go into town for a fortnight to complete some business and religious matters.
March (Ewen Leslie) is a nasty piece of work – today he’d be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I daresay – who mistreats Sam as they construct basic fencing.
And then he rapes Lizzie while Sam’s out working.
To make matters worse he comes to Smith’s homestead after Sam and Lizzie have arrived home and starts shooting through the outside walls of the tiny building with his 303: bayonet attached as well, if you don’t mind.
Sam picks up one of Fred Smith’s shotguns, loads it and fires both barrels as March lurches in through the door.
So as a blackfella who has gunned down a whitefella he has to go on the run.
Word filters back into town once neighbouring station hand Archie (Gibson John) discovers the corpse of March in the dirt outside Smith’s home.
Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) leads a small posse with Archie as the tracker, but Sam and Lizzie evade them with comparative ease.
Fletcher’s posse stumbles upon a secret tribal ceremony being held in a dried-up water course. The Aboriginal men line up with spears and boomerangs at the ready and when Fletcher’s young constable fires a shot he’s killed by an unerring aboriginal thrower.
That spells the end of the posse. Smith heads off home after Fletcher decks him at the night-time camp while Archie and two other whitefellas also pack up.
Fletcher continues on the hunt for Sam, alone. He almost dies crossing a vast salt lake before collapsing into a large-ish water hole.
Meanwhile Sam decides for the well-being of his pregnant wife to give himself up.
Fletcher eventually finds Sam and Lizzie sitting in the dust in front of the town lock-up and the pair are arraigned for trial.
Their appearance before NT Judge Taylor (Matt Day) bookends the film with some tense to-and-fro between Sam and the judge.
Director Warwick Thornton provides us with breath-taking outback scenes, made even more amazing as they spread across the giant full screen.
There’s sunrises, sunsets with a scarlet sky, a grey palette and damp undergrowth (what there is of it) as a storm approaches and dumps heavy rain and the glittering rainbow afterwards as the rain and wind pass by.
Of course the night skies have to be seen to be believed. On a cloudless Northern Territory night the vista is spectacular.
The only comparable sky I’ve seen has been from a Bedouin encampment in Egypt’s Sinai desert. Like the Aussie inland beyond Uluru, there’s not a light from a building or an airport anywhere to limit the sheen of the stars and satellites up above.
And as far as the acting performances went I have to say I’ve never seen Bryan Brown play a better part.
He was completely believable as the harried and failed tracker Sergeant Fletcher.
After the posse hunting Sam and Lizzie broke up the sergeant’s utter relief at finding a water hole after limping across a desolate salt pan beside his stressed horse was palpable.
On his last legs he just completely collapsed into the cooling waters, clothes and boots and all.