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Sweet Country | John McDonald

Sweet Country

January 25, 2018
Rough justice in 'Sweet Country'
Rough justice in 'Sweet Country'

Sweet Country is Warwick Thornton’s contribution to the Australia Day debate. It’s an issue that returns every year with growing force as left-wing moralism locks horns with the forces of right-wing populism. The polarisation is particularly disturbing in light of a recent survey that revealed 56% of the population couldn’t care less whether Australia Day falls on 26 January or another day. A day off is a day off, regardless of what it symbolises.

The profound indifference of most citizens and the ideological fervour of left and right is a fair reflection of local attitudes towards all political debate. The major difference between the 1920s, the era in which Sweet Country is set, and today, is that base-line public opinion on matters of race and gender has become markedly more tolerant.

In the 1920s it was common for public figures to make derogatory statements about Aborigines, Asians or Jews. Nowadays, despite the best efforts of a few unscrupulous politicians, such blatant racism is unacceptable to the vast majority of Australians. The idea of white supremacy, taken for granted by many people in the 1920s, is now a nasty, shameful aberration.

Sweet Country presents a grim portrait of race relations in a tiny frontier town in the Northern Territory in the years following the First World War. It’s a kind of feudal system, with white trash farmers employing blacks as virtual slave labour. As ever, for those at the bottom of the social heap it’s necessary to have someone else who may be considered an inferior.

Sam Neill’s Fred Smith is the exception to the rule. As a devout Christian he treats his black workers as equals. Far more common is his neighbour, Mick Kennedy, (Thomas M.Wright), who barks at his workers, and deals out harsh punishment – even to young Philomac (played by twins, Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), who is actually his half-caste son.

The most extreme case is new arrival, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a shell-shocked war veteran still fighting battles in his head. The film begins with March paying a visit to Smith, asking if he can borrow his “blackstock” to help set up his homestead. While Smith is not impressed by March’s terminology, he asks his helper, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), to go over and lend a hand.

When Sam turns up with wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), and his teenage niece, March tells them to make camp away from the house. In word and deed, March treats Sam and his family as subhumans, good only for following orders. His brutality and sense of entitlement extends to his designs on the women. Sam sends his niece away, but while he is out rounding up cattle, Lizzie is cornered and raped.

When Sam and Lizzie head back to Smith’s place, March borrows Kennedy’s head man, Archie (Gibson John) and Philomac. The boy’s pilfering sends the white boss into paroxysms, and he chains him to a rock. When the offender escapes, March goes on a rampage. He tracks Philomac to Smith’s property, where he finds Sam and Lizzie alone. Demanding to know where the boy is, he starts firing a gun into the house. Sam opens the door and shoots March in self-defence.

Sam knows he has crossed a line from which there’s no going back. For a black man to kill a white man, under any circumstances, is a hanging offence.

In the next phase of the story Sam and Lizzie go bush, pursued by the deranged Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose mania to see justice done seems to be in direct conflict with any instincts of self-preservation.

A different kind of justice will be administered by Judge Taylor (Matt Day), a young magistrate who will try to uphold legal standards in front of a jeering, drunken crowd of locals, all baying for blood.

If you’re thinking that Sweet Country doesn’t sound like an especially cheerful night at the pictures, I can’t find reasons to argue. Thornton’s film is as brutal as Greek tragedy, and unfolds with the same inexorability. There is no background music, apart from one ironically intended Johnny Cash song that plays as the final credits roll. The landscape is hot, dry and hostile, day after day. Sam and Archie feel at home in this environment, but for the white settlers it’s a constant struggle to maintain life and sanity.

We never believe for a moment that Sam will get the justice he deserves, although there are stirrings of decency among the whites – not just Fred Smith and the Magistrate, but even Kennedy.

The most conflicted personality is Sergeant Fletcher, who seems to have lost his wits through having to keep the peace in a lawless environment. Fletcher is a damaged soul who expresses his frustration in outbursts of megalomania, anger and volence.

None of Thornton’s characters is exactly well-rounded, but neither are they caricatures. It’s the minimal nature of this film, as stark and bare as the Outback itself, that leaves one with a hollow feeling. There’s evil and injustice in the white occupation of this land, but above all it feels like a tragic mistake. It begs the question: Are we still making the same mistakes today?

Sweet Country
Directed by Warwick Thornton
Written by Steven McGregor & David Tranter
Starring Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey Furber, Matt Day, Trevon & Tremayne Doolan, Ewen Leslie, Thomas M.Wright, Gibson John
Australia, rated MA 15+, 113 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 January, 2018