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The new Oz trials in Sweet Country

Sam Neill stars in heartbreaking story about a murder, a hunt, and a trial, set in the sun-baked, flea-bitten austerity of Australia’s Northern Territory

08 March, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Sam Neill as preacher and stockman Fred Smith in Sweet Country

SWEET COUNTRY
Directed by Warwick Thornton
Certificate 15
☆☆☆☆

A NEW wave of film that tells the stories of 20th-century Australia is ready to be made. Director Warwick Thornton says he has been heavily influenced by the Western genre, but as an indigenous Australian, he prefers the later Spaghetti Westerns which re-cast the relationship between white settlers and Native Americans: as this utterly brilliant film shows, the stories of Australia’s torrid colonial past offer a rich seam to mine.

Set in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory in 1929, this is a sun-baked, flea-bitten and austere place. It is a landscape where smallholdings are dotted about the Bush, places where life is hard but the sheer size of the earth and sky emphasise how small and meaningless an individual’s life is.

We meet preacher and stockman Fred Smith (Sam Neill) at his home, with his farm hand Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). Fred has to head to the nearest town for a few days, so leaves Sam and Lizzie to look after his place.

Meanwhile, stumbling into the plot comes Harry (Ewen Leslie), an out-and-out racist who thinks nothing of inflicting casual violence. His character kickstarts a heartbreaking story about a murder, a hunt, and a trial.

Hamilton Morris as Sam Kelly, and Natassia Gorey-Furber as Lizzie

After Sam kills Harry in self-defence, we are treated to a classic story of pursuit in a harsh world, and of truth and justice versus a white man’s sense of entitlement. Sam takes his pursuers out into the Bush for a proper walkabout – and as well as giving the film-maker the opportunity to show stunningly beautiful country, it creates a question in the mind of the viewer as to who is actually the advanced civilisation: the God-fearing settlers with their reliance on a whole range of products and goods to keep them safe in harsh conditions, or the people who have lived there for thousands of years and have a more natural link to the landscape and the ability to live with it.

Thornton worked with writer David Tranter to create the story, based on true events. They both grew up in the same town in the same area the film is set, and in the production notes he writes: “Our families went through a lot of the same things, and it’s a history we would hear about growing up. In the 1920s we indigenous Australians weren’t technically slaves but we worked for free, worked for rations, under the authority imposed by a law called the Native Affairs Act. So, these family stories are also my inheritance – a personal part of this history that belongs to all of us. One of these stories is the true tale of an Aboriginal man, Wilaberta Jack, who in the 1920s was arrested and tried for the murder of a white man in Central Australia. “

With this in mind, it makes the story-telling feel even more alive. This is superbly paced, with faultless acting, a script that wastes no words, and some moments of cinematography make you want to head out into a place that offers some of the most perfect landscapes you could ever cast your eyes on. A film with a brilliant plot and an important message at its heart: surely this is what movies are all about?

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