Nine years ago, I was absolutely bowled over by an Australian film by the name of “Samson & Delilah”; a beautiful and painful love story between two Aboriginal teenagers, as they attempt to survive in a world that appears to not want them. It is a dark and at times brutal film, but at the same time it is full of such beauty and hope as it shows how love can look past the faults in a person, and be there for them after they fall and need to be picked up again. Visually, the film was also something else, exposing Central Australia's stunning landscapes for everyone to see. The film's director was Warwick Thornton, and “Samson & Delilah” was actually his feature debut. Ever since, I have been waiting for this talented artist's next feature, and while the wait has been long, it is finally over with the release of “Sweet Country”.
Set in Northern Australia in the 1920's, “Sweet Country” is the tale of Sam, an Aboriginal farmhand, who one day in an act of self defence (for himself and his wife) shoots dead a white man attempting to aggressively enter the house he is living in. Although the shooting was just, Sam knows that the fact that he is an Aboriginal and the man he shot was white, he will be hunted down and made to pay. He grabs his wife and flees into the Australian outback, before a quickly arranged posse, led by Sergeant Fletcher, gathers intent on finding him and making him hang for his crime.
This is such a simple story sublimely told by Thornton. There are large chunks of the film that are dialogue free and the images are left to tell the story. As Sam and his wife flee, we are gifted with stunning image after stunning image of the Australian outback to the point that it would not be wrong to say that “Sweet Country” is a love letter to the landscapes of the outback. The beautiful red soils, the blue skies that appear to go on forever, and the stunning and otherworldly salt lakes. I suppose there could be a cynical viewer that deems the film to be nothing more than a travelogue for Northern Australia, but there is a whole lot more going on here than just pretty pictures. However before we leave the topic, let me mention that Warwick Thornton himself fills the role of the film's cinematographer, and does a stunning job with it all. He not only excels with the exposing of Australia's stunning vistas but the characters themselves are always expertly lit. Watching the film, it reminded me of something French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung said in an interview once when he was explaining why he changed his cinematographer from Benoit Delhomme, who lensed Hung's first two films, to Mark Lee-Ping for “The Vertical Ray of the Sun”, his third film. He said that although Delhomme and Lee-Ping were both fantastic cinematographers, Lee-Ping had the added advantage of being Asian himself, that gave him almost an unconscious understanding of how best to light the Asian skin. Warwick Thornton, being Aboriginal himself, I believe understands that same thing, because the way he lights his Aboriginal characters especially just brings a light out in their skin that is so beautiful that I'm not sure that I have seen before, except in “Samson & Delilah”, his previous film.
What is interesting about the film is its structure and in the fact that it is essentially broken down into three parts. The first being the set up, and lead up to the violent encounter. The second, the fleeing and hunt through the outback, and finally, the trial, where not only Sam is being judged but also the racism that exists within the country town too. However within this relatively normal structure, Thornton does a strange thing when he introduces characters to us, in that he gives us brief “flash forwards” to the character's fates in the future. Initially we, the audience, do not understand these brief images but we soon come to learn what they all mean. It was an interesting device, that I actually really liked, as the images are quite arresting and powerful and almost juxtaposes what is happening to the character in the present compared to how they will be by the end.
Essentially the film is a violent attack on and a call for help against racism that sadly still exists in Australia even today. It's troubling that I do not doubt for a minute that if this story was brought to modern times, it would still work, as I am sure an Aboriginal man would be looked upon more negatively today if he or she shot a white person, even if like Sam, it was a just killing. In other words, the film's story is quite relevant in today's society too. I also think that the Australian release date of the film, which was January 25th , is also indicative about what the film is trying to say. Recent debate about whether the date of Australia Day should be changed or whether the day should be celebrated at all, as it is the date that the country was invaded by white man and stolen from the indigenous people of the land. “Sweet Country” no doubt showcases the destructive nature of the takeover of the land by the whites here, and of the fact that they had no self awareness that they were invaders, due to their arrogance.
Warwick Thornton has cobbled together an outstanding cast for “Sweet Country” and though the big names of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are both outstanding (as is Ewan Leslie as the outwardly racist and soon to be dead rancher Harry March), the film belongs to newcomer but old timer, Hamilton Morris who plays Sam. It is stunning to think that this is Morris's first role in a film, as his inexperience never shows for an instant. He is always believable as this sweet man with a caring soul, terrified of the fate that appears bestowed upon him after doing what he needed to do to save himself and his wife. He doesn't say much, but it is all in this man's eyes. They give away everything in how he is feeling, not to mention exposing all of his life experiences. It is a beautifully subtle performance, that makes you feel for this poor man's plight. The one performance that I was not a huge fan of, though, was by Matt Day who plays a judge towards the film's end. While every one else in the film came across so natural and as part of this world, he stood out and appeared very “stagey”. You could feel him act more than the other performers.
Overall, there is so much more I could still say about “Sweet Country” as this is a stunning Australian film. While it moves at a deliberate pace, I never once found the film boring, rather I was swept up in its majestic images and sounds of the Australian outback and mesmerised by it all. I have failed to mention that the film has no score, and yet it is never missed. While I would never say that the film is too violent, I should mention that when violence is committed, Thornton does not hold back. This is violence that you feel; it is bloody and messy and it hurts like hell. For mine, Warwick Thornton has created yet another stunning Australian film with “Sweet Country” and I hope we do not have to wait another decade for a follow up to it.