For much of the last thirty years, Australian cinema has attempted to address the mistreatment, abuse and continual violence inflicted on our indigenous population since European invasion. Films that have addressed this head-on tend to look to the past, as an attempt to acknowledge it in the process of healing, or look to contemporary times and explore the modern Aboriginal experience. For many white Australians, their understanding of the past and present of our First Peoples is that of a violent past now reconciled to history, an "unfortunate" period now come to an end. What most white Australians do not understand is that this period is not over, morphing into new forms and seeping even further into the racist foundations of our culture. It is this conceit that forms the backbone of Warwick Thornton's 'Sweet Country', a creation born out of that blood, horror and intense anger.
Set in 1929 in the Northern Territory, the film follows multiple storylines around a confrontation between Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and white station owner Harry Marsh (Ewen Leslie). In self-defence, Sam kills Marsh and, with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), runs into the bush to escape punishment. On his trail is Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), hell-bent on capturing Sam and bringing him to justice, convinced of his guilt without any understanding of what has happened.
At a cursory glance. 'Sweet Country' has all the trappings one would expect from a traditional Western, but with a distinctly Australian flavour, as with 'The Proposition' (2005) or 'Goldstone' (2016). We see man at mercy against the elements and each other, set against a landscape of enormous unforgiving scope and the threat of violence at every turn. As with all great Westerns though, 'Sweet Country' is about something much deeper and complex, and it is in this that the film exceeds the parameters of its genre and becomes something truly extraordinary. What Thornton has created as an attempt to grapple with the violence perpetrated against his ancestors and against his community now is a film that is as much about the present as it is the past. The destruction of family, their dehumanisation, their treatment as savages and beasts, the destruction of indigenous languages and nations, conscious decisions to assimilate and submit rather than suffer, even the horrifying manner in which we turned Aboriginal people against themselves by indoctrinating sickening instances of self-racism and blasting established relationships and treaties between Aboriginal nations - this barely scratches the surface of everything this film meticulously and furiously addresses, its clear narrative and characterisation allowing for a thunderous, violent subtext. 'Sweet Country' captures Australia at a moment of transition, as indigenous nations begin to vanish or assimilate and how white Australians rush to erase and replace them with our own mythology of the ANZACs and Ned Kelly and our toxic concept of racist, sexist and nationalistic masculinity.
What hits the hardest - and makes it a film of incredible importance - is that Thornton isn't talking about an Australia of the past, but Australia now. He offers us a window into our bloody history, something we actively try to ignore, and forces us to accept that things have not changed, simply morphed into new ways that we, the ancestors of those European invaders, continue to treat the Aboriginal population as less than human. The simplicity of the film's narrative and the clarity of its characterisation functions so that the deeper meaning - a deeper pain and anger - can shine through, and witnessing it is at times almost too overwhelming to bear.
On top of that, the film itself is a staggering work of cinema, directed with fine-point precision by Thornton, who starts from a place of tension and barely allows a moment of release. His understanding of form and medium is impeccable, further establishing him as one of the best Australian filmmakers working today. Thornton and Dylan River's cinematography is extraordinary, perhaps the most stunning we've ever seen in an Australian film, capturing the Northern Territory in a way I've never seen before. The colours are rich and unexpected, the images careful and precise, the camera rendering us an active observer, forcing us to bear witness whether we wish to or not. Perhaps the greatest surprise is Nick Meyer's editing, innovative and surprising, and shaping what could have been a straight-forward narrative into something more demanding and complex. Image is the primary storytelling tool in 'Sweet Country', and its use of this device is almost peerless within our country's cinema.
What Thornton has created as an attempt to grapple with the violence perpetrated against his ancestors and against his community now is a film that is as much about the present as it is the past.
The cast are also uniformly excellent. Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie, Matt Day and Thomas M. Wright all deliver intelligent, detailed performances completely in step with the meticulous nature of Thornton's approach. Yet the best work comes from the indigenous cast, especially Hamilton Morris' quiet desperation as Sam, and the extraordinary duel performances from twins Tremayne and Trevor Doolan as half-caste boy Philomac. We watch as this young boy is pulled between his Aboriginal and European heritage, and our hearts break as the bonds to his indigenous culture are severed, first by others and then by himself. As Lizzie, Natassia Gorey-Furber delivers a performance of almost silent devastation, forced into a corner where to defend herself is to condemn herself. Her performance is utterly heartbreaking for how she so powerfully captures Lizzie's inevitable damnation. Thornton also uses local languages in the film, and for a film where characters mourn for the loss of their language, seeing it preserved in screen for posterity is deeply moving.
There's no way I can write about this film and articulately capture what an extraordinary work it is. It is simply too big, too deep and too powerful an experience, and as a white Australian, I can never truly comprehend the deep pain at its heart. It demands everything from you, a willingness to listen and to learn and to accept that we live in a country where every inch is bathed in blood, the blood of a people here long before us, a people we forced into suffering and who still, to this day, continue to suffer. It cannot be a coincidence that this film is being released in Australia the day before Invasion Day. As a film, it is an extraordinary achievement, and as a political statement, it is a thunderous roar of anger. In its final minutes it hit me like a battering ram, leaving me heaving with sobs and deeply shaken. There's no question that Warwick Thornton has created a devastating, overwhelming masterpiece, the first truly great film of 2018. Perhaps more than anything though, 'Sweet Country' is easily one of the most important Australian films ever made.