First came the upward sweep of Samson & Delilah (2009) into the annals of Australian mythology, one of the few departures from the colonial trend of Australian storytelling. Following in those steps, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) aspires of a similar folklore, but doesn’t reach the mark.
Sweet Country is the story of a hunted-man, Sam Kelly, on his flight from a false murder charge through the outback. The film attempts to carve into the cultural complexities of 1929 frontier Australia. Having dug out an important niche in the oft colonially-slanted perspectives of Australian storytelling, Thornton’s work dons an Indigenous Australian perspective on Country. This in mind, the breadth and ambition of Sweet Country fails to meet the task it sets for itself – to unpack the complex and long woven prejudices of culture between colonial and indigenous Australians. Taking on this challenge in any sense, and falling short of it, is, in itself, an important creative move. That said, these explorations in Sweet Country backslide into damaging representations that draw the barrel of scrutiny and criticism down to the very feet of the piece.
The mythological grandeur of Sam Kelly’s story – a pursuit through the bush, rife with romance, violence and fragile masculine egos – falls in the no mans land between mythos and between realism. Flat and inconsistent characters fail to carry through the prejudices of the context in a believable way, instead remaining half-cooked archetypes. These include the silent tracker man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), soft-spoken and wise. The religious man, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who scrutinizes and perceives all wronging, but fails to intercede. The Lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose prejudices are a matter of personal ego, making him all the more dangerous. And, most fractured and flat of them all, the silent woman, Lizzie, who does not speak of her abuse and does not show independence of any kind during the film. These characters – who sit in a fascinating backdrop of colonial Australia – fall blandly short of the nuance of their very context. In this complex landscape or clashing cultural tides, they are flat and unconvincing. There are moments in the film when we hope – beg – for characters to speak up, or show some level of motivation for self-preservation, but instead there is a stagnancy. Yet this stagnancy does not feel calculated, but instead a product of poor writing, and the silted direction of the actors’ performances.
That said, there is a stylistic flair that lends this film backbone in places where narrative momentum and structure are lacking. Without music, the soundscape emulates the emptiness and danger of landscapes unmastered, yet shows the relative peace afforded in those same spaces to those who are familiar with the country. The layered images of Lizzie, Sam & the Sergeant moving horizontally across an at once close-and-distant landscape provide a sense of theatricality and sentient landscape that ‘channels’ the characters on their journey. Eucalypts, Ooraminna Station’s dry grassland surrounds, and the red earthen bluffs of the Simpson Desert seem to glide in layers between which the characters roll, unaware of their predetermined paths. The slowness of scenes, intercut with the ‘flash-forward’ glimpses build a sense of inevitability, yet, when these destinies land true, they don’t serve by way of conclusion but as a blockade to imagining the futures beyond characters. We are stuck in the 2D, cardboard present. Whilst the stylistic delivery of Thornton made this film more cohesive and quite immersive, this attempted weave of mythology arrives only as a half-delivered tragedy, weakening the film at points when it needs to be hitting the hardest.
Sweet Country continues the long-woven tapestry of Australian into realms lesser explored – those perspectives of the people of the First Nations. Our colonial perspective represent the outback as a place of hungry terror – a space that eats colonials and holds mystery and the unknown, as in Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), or Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). However, as Sweet Country explores, the landscape is equivalently a space of retreat, stasis and safety for non-colonials (Samson & Delilah, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)) and even sometimes outcast individuals as in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). The same stylistic notes as Samson & Delilah that lend insight into the remote reaches of landscape that are peripheral to our everyday existence, yet have been the structural tenants of modern Australian culture.
The style lends strength to a film that seeks to deliver an important and still resonant message of prejudice, and the self-feeding loop of illogical inequalities that continue to shape Australia’s society. I shy away from stating that ‘Sweet Country’ ‘flew too close to the sun’ of Australian political commentary, because of the importance of shifting the balance of perspectives we have on Country. Yet I left the cinema feeling dissatisfied with the story, which felt like tragedy endured to make a point, but instead delivering dry and reckless social criticism with no room for improvement. Fred Smith’s parting lines – ‘What hope does this country have?’ – leaves little wiggle room for development towards something better, and this film does not deliver a mythological lesson that is easily wielded. That said, the craft and steeped knowledge of the landscape in this film shows great promise for the future of new perspectives of Australian storytelling.