Since the introduction of film to Australian audiences, it seems we’ve been obsessed with traveling back to colonial times with many historical cinema period pieces made. Most of these have included a focus on the atrocities and prejudice against the indigenous natives of the land, such as Rabit-Proof Fence and Ten Canoes. With these in mind, Warwick Thornton’s latest film Sweet Country aims to continue such tradition and adds to his award-winning filmography that also includes 2009’s Samson and Delilah which was also about the indigenous culture.
Sweet Country follows the life of Sam (Hamilton Morris) a middle-aged Aboriginal farmer, who is suddenly swept up in a serious pursuit following his killing of a local white man but in self-defense. Knowing any defense that he’d put up would be quickly dismissed, Sam decides to run from the law with his wife and amongst his journey, an exploration for the hunt of a racially abused man turns to the hunt for the true meaning of justice. Such lines were blurred in colonial times of Australia’s upbringings and much like the irony presented in the title, Sweet Country begs the question of what hope is there left for this beloved land of ours.
This is where Thornton’s piece truly hits his mark. With the final act of the film being a swift execution to live a begging question that not only resonates with the time it was set in but with the recent years that have followed. Australians are proud to live in a country where freedom and peace are openly accepted values that we boast loud and proud but at the same time, we should always be aware of the same values we denied to others. Whilst the film isn’t as powerful or relatable to Thornton’s previous modern telling of Samson and Delilah, it does well as such a reminder that we must never forget our roots no matter how tough they can be to stomach.
Though the final act is an enjoyable finish, the rest of the film is much more of a stock standard affair that whilst remains solid throughout, doesn’t do much to stand out as a plot to be captivated by. This is partly at fault that we’ve seen better films do more with the same subject matter (see Rabbit-Proof Fence) with more emotional investment and hardship at stake. Don’t get me wrong, we still sympathize our leads unfortunate plea and search for the simple life, but in terms of breaking him down more as a fragmented man, this is lacking. But perhaps this is all the point. Sam is the strong, humble and honest man that makes far better than any of the counterparts that seek to deject him based simply on his skin color. It’s just that being so stone-faced can often make it harder to be attached to their plight.
Overall Sweet Country is still a worthy addition to Australian cinema as one of its highlights is that it looks absolutely stunning. The cinematography was also done by Warwick Thornton and it’s clear to tell, he has improved ten-fold from his last film in Samson and Delilah. The Australian landscape is truly on display here, with vivid sunburst orange sunsets and widescreen shots of dense bushland of the red outback just a joy to watch. All the costuming and set designs also deserve commendation as they set a faithful adaption to representing what life in colonial times would have looked but more importantly felt like. Those were tough times, and judging by the sweat on their brows and the dirt upon their clothes, each character portrayed the hardship of Australia’s origins.
Though this film isn’t the most exciting or captivating masterpiece that will bring your attention, it nevertheless should remain an important reminder of the pain and hard truths we Australian’s must always face. This film will serve greatly to those who love Australian history and in a more appropriate sense, those that belong to the baby boomer generations who are sure to know more so firsthand the very same themes Thornton touches upon.