Warwick Thornton brings the Western to the outback in Sweet Country

Sweet Country | Dir: Warwick Thornton | M | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton has once again ventured into the outback of the Northern Territory. This time he uses the stunning red landscape as a setting for a Western. But this is no traditional Western. There’s no music to tell the audience what they should be feeling. This is left up to the sounds of the landscape and the people, and the story which is based on actual events that occurred in 1929.

Thornton explains that his film depicts a part of the history that hasn’t made its way into the school curriculum. White settlers took the land from the Aboriginal people who had lived on it for generations. If the indigenous people wanted to stay on the land, they had to work without getting paid (except for an allowance of tea, sugar and white flour that would have health consequences for generations to follow), and were treated abysmally by their white ‘owners’ and the laws that supported them.

When Aboriginal stock man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills alcoholic war veteran and station owner Harry March (Ewan Leslie) in self defense, he flees with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). The posse that pursues the pair consists of Police Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), Aboriginal tracker (Vincent John) and local landowners Fred Smith (Sam Neill) and Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright). Smith is concerned about Kelly’s welfare and Kennedy wants vengeance.

While the moving pictures celebrate the exploits of the white Kelly guy (Ned), most of the population want rough justice and Sam Kelly becomes the victim of vehement racism. The pace is slow as the MacDonnell ranges spill into the endless outback and then become harsh desert salt plains… all captured by sublime cinematography. What becomes obvious is the contrast between the Aboriginal connection with the land and the jarring and fatal ignorance of the newcomers.

The image of the boiling cauldron at the beginning of the film reminds the audience of the simmering racism. Unfortunately Thornton finds parallels between the grim 1929 depicted in his film and his experiences of growing up in Alice Springs in the 1990s. Thornton’s intimate film resonates with years of injustice in this sweet country.

Sweet Country received a 5 minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.

Catch a special Q&A with director Warwick Thornton on Monday 29 January at Luna Leederville at 6.30pm.

Lezly Herbert

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