Drawing its inspiration from real events, Sweet Country is a period western set in 1929 Central Australia. It has certainly earned its crown as the most internationally acclaimed Australian film of the year. Starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and introducing Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber, it's directed by Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) and has already garnered a slew of awards.
Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) go on the run when Sam, an Aboriginal stockman, kills white station owner Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence, but who's going to believe him? Leading a posse and guided by Aboriginal tracker Archie (Gibson John), Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) hunts Sam and Lizzie down across the outback through harsh desert country. He's desperate for this capture to put Sam on trial for murder, but Sam's too much of an expert bushman and manages to stay out of reach. Eventually, he does turn himself in for the health of his pregnant wife and is put on trial in the courtroom of Judge Taylor (Matt Day).
Shot in the MacDonnell Ranges, this film uses the vast spaces of the desert and its silence to emphasise the story of the characters and the hardships they face. It also stays authentic to the communication of the local Aboriginal culture, using looks, hand signals and an understanding rather than being all in the dialogue. Sam may drive the plot as the central character, but the story also affects the character of a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy who is coming of age while caught between the social upheaval and cultural conflict of frontier life in the 1920s.
Warwick Thornton is a director and an award-winning cinematographer, shooting Sweet Country together with his son Dylan River. His films mark him as a unique voice in Australian cinema, and he brings his own particular visual style and staging to the film. Actors Sam Neill (a religious good Samaritan), Bryan Brown (tough local police sergeant), Ewen Leslie (Harry March the shell-shocked 1st world war vet) and Thomas M Wright (selfish narcissist Kennedy) all deliver outstanding performances. It is equally matched by local Alice Springs Aboriginal actors Hamilton Morris (Sam Kelly) and young boy Philomac (played by 13 year old identical twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). As first timers in front of the camera, the twins do a brilliant job showing the vulnerability of the character they play.
It was a bold choice by the director to not have music in the film He wanted the soundscape to be of the desert, inviting you to feel and hear the desert wind, the birds and insects. The emptiness is deafening as is the brutality, unseen, at the very start. Complex and multi-layered, it's also a deeper exploration of the violence and bigotry at the heart of Australia and its history, coming together brilliantly as an action chase thriller. From start to finish it has you in its grips.
With a release date of 25 January 2018, don't miss this film that uses the accessibility of the western genre to draw you into an authentic story of a world which is as brutal as it is heartfelt. A definite 10 out of 10 for me.