War­wick Thornton’s Sweet Coun­try: a trag­ic inves­ti­ga­tion of race on Australia’s frontier

Lucio Crispino
The Conversation, 10 October 2017
The open­ing of War­wick Thornton’s Sweet Coun­try (2017) is as pro­sa­ic as it is poet­ic. A bat­tle-scarred bil­ly on a roar­ing camp­fire has come to the boil. Into its churn­ing depths an uniden­ti­fied hand drops a palm­ful of tea, fol­lowed by two more of sug­ar. Just enough to sweet­en its oth­er­wise pun­gent bit­ter­ness. Off-screen, from what feels to be anoth­er time and space, we hear a wild­ly enraged white­fel­la insult­ing an all-but-silent black­fel­la. The taunt black bas­tard” is barked with undi­lut­ed con­tempt. Over the course of the film, this point­ed jux­ta­po­si­tion of sound and image will be used, in con­cert with a series of fleet­ing flash­backs and flash­for­wards, to both lay­er and unfold an acute­ly trag­ic nar­ra­tive. Thornton’s sen­si­tive­ly script­ed sto­ry, which draws on the con­ven­tions of the west­ern, is sim­ple. Its social and eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions, though, are not. In self-defence, an Indige­nous man, Sam Kel­ly (Hamil­ton Mor­ris) shoots and kills a local landown­er, Har­ry March (Ewan Leslie). Only lat­er, while they are on the run, does Kel­ly learn that March raped and impreg­nat­ed his wife, Lizzie (Natas­sia Gorey-Furber). After they return and sur­ren­der them­selves, this infor­ma­tion has a deci­sive impact on the out­come of his tri­al and its trau­mat­ic aftermath. 
In their film, set in the 1920s in the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry, Thorn­ton and his scriptwrit­ers gen­er­ate a great deal of com­plex­i­ty from a rel­a­tive­ly straight­for­ward plot. For exam­ple, although the landown­er for whom Kel­ly and Lizzie work, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), says he regards them as equals, this does not pre­vent him from loan­ing” them to March and, in doing so, con­sid­er­ing him­self a good Chris­t­ian. Like­wise, March’s bor­row­ing” of them to help him work his land is clear­ly moti­vat­ed more by a com­pul­sion to abuse and ter­rorise them than a gen­uine need for their labour. To com­pli­cate mat­ters fur­ther, the roots of his patho­log­i­cal thirst for cru­el­ty appear to lie in the deep psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age caused by years spent fight­ing in the night­mar­ish trench­es of the first world war. It could even be argued that Kel­ly, long before March threat­ened him at gun­point, was already at war with him and his ilk. This is a fact vivid­ly mag­ni­fied by the fatal encounter between Sergeant Fletcher’s (Bryan Brown) posse and a par­ty of undo­mes­ti­cat­ed” Abo­rig­i­nal war­riors. Impres­sive as they are, these are by no means the film’s great­est or most mem­o­rable cin­e­mat­ic sub­tleties. Sweet Country’s fin­er moments undoubt­ed­ly belong to its intel­li­gent mise en scène; its unflap­pable trust in action as a means of telling, not just show­ing; and, last but not least, its del­i­cate defor­ma­tions of nar­ra­tive flow and direc­tion. For instance, I can­not recall a sin­gle scene in which the land­scape was mere­ly a con­ve­nient back­drop or dec­o­ra­tive set­ting for the actor’s bod­ies, ges­tures and dia­logue. Even the light and weath­er that sculpt and ani­mate its sub­lime, occa­sion­al­ly men­ac­ing immen­si­ty play an indis­pens­able role in shap­ing the dra­mat­ic highs and lows of Thornton’s taut, but mer­cu­r­ial nar­ra­tive. Fletcher’s gru­elling attempt to tra­verse the blis­ter­ing sur­face of a blind­ing salt lake with­out assis­tance is unfor­get­table in this regard. Indeed, noth­ing sums up his not being in accord with the land he and his fel­low invaders want to pos­sess and dom­i­nate than his near death in this vir­tu­al­ly word­less sequence. Kel­ly, who is in accord with it, res­cues him. Most impres­sive of all, how­ev­er, is the film’s spar­ing (but potent) use of flash­backs and flash­for­wards. Thorn­ton and his edi­tor, Nick Myers, employ these to embody the par­tial­ly abstract notion of his­tor­i­cal con­se­quences. By evok­ing the past or the future of a par­tic­u­lar thought or act, they make vis­i­ble a process that is some­times hard to grasp, even when it is beyond doubt. To present the seed or fruit of a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion while it is still unrav­el­ling is to high­light its eth­i­cal dimen­sion, to under­mine its inevitabil­i­ty. We rarely see this kind of syn­chronic­i­ty between form and phi­los­o­phy in Aus­tralian cin­e­ma. That said, to my mind, Thornton’s wide­ly laud­ed Sam­son and Delilah (2009) evinces a some­what more uncom­pro­mis­ing atti­tude towards the cor­ro­sive impact of British colo­nial­ism and Euro­pean Chris­tian­i­ty. This is because Sweet Country’s cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal authen­tic­i­ty, as it were, is affect­ed by the fact that it fea­tures two inter­na­tion­al­ly recog­nis­able actors and draws on a Hol­ly­wood genre for its iconog­ra­phy. For­tu­nate­ly, only in a hand­ful of instances do these con­sti­tute a dis­trac­tion of any real sig­nif­i­cance. In truth, for me, there were many pay­offs with respect to its pow­er­ful rework­ing of the out­back west­ern. Chief among these was a pos­si­ble – tan­ta­lis­ing – con­nec­tion between set­tler Mick Kennedy’s (Thomas M. Wright) water­mel­ons in Sweet Coun­try and Tom Doniphon’s (John Wayne) cac­tus ros­es in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Valance (1962). Both rep­re­sent a point of col­li­sion between one world and anoth­er. Our task, as view­ers, is to turn col­li­sion into crossover. 
Sweet Coun­try pre­miered in Aus­tralia at the Ade­laide Film Fes­ti­val. It will be released gen­er­al­ly in 2018 Pic­tured: Natas­sia Gorie Furber and Hamil­ton Mor­ris in War­wick Thorn­ton, Sweet Coun­try, 2017.
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