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Saturday, 27 January 2018

Movie review: Sweet Country, dir Warwick Thornton (2017)

I saw this movie on Australia Day which is apposite considering its subject matter. It is a film about the frontier in the 1920s in the wake of WWI and it’s hard to say it – especially because of how the public sphere has become so highly polarised in recent years – but it is only partly successful.

Bear with me if you are liable to disagree with this judgement because I am writing from a position that is fundamentally in tune with the filmmaker’s objectives, but there are some basic problems that stem from the writing on which the film relies. The execution is marvellous, the outback glows with a luminescence that it rarely possesses outside the limited but well-resourced confines of paid advertisements, but some of the characterisation suffers from a narrow view of the truth that owes more to the modern-day history wars than to history itself.

The film starts when Harry March (Ewen Leslie) turns up in the community one day as the owner of an established property. He is a firecracker, a survivor of WWI who suffers from PTSD and exhibits some bizarre behaviours. Harry asks Fred Smith (Sam Neill) if he can loan his station hand (his “black”) Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) for a few days to do some work on his run. Sam Kelly goes to the run with his wife and his niece and helps with some chores. His wife and niece meanwhile do some housework. Harry rapes Sam Kelly’s wife Nell (Anni Finsterer) and peremptorily tells him to get off his property.

The strangeness distorting the outlines of Harry’s character is compounded when he goes to visit Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) on another neighbouring property and again asks if he can borrow a “black” to do some work on his run. Kennedy assents and sends Archie (Gibson John) and Philomac (played by twins Tremayne Doolan and Trevon Doolan). But Harry chains up Philomac, who escapes and absconds, heading to Fred Smith’s property. Harry follows, threatens Sam Kelly with his gun and is shot and dies.

The weird behaviour of Harry March is unsettling enough but Mick Kennedy also displays strange behaviour, throwing belligerent curses at Archie and constantly threatening Philomac with physical violence. This is a dangerous way to conduct yourself in a place and at a time when revenge can be covered up by a thousand casual accidents of fortune. The subtle relations that thrived between whites and blacks on the frontier are cravenly and disastrously distorted as the filmmakers try to gain purchase within the minds of their audience in order to score their points. It’s all terribly skewed. Face-to-face relations between white and black were far more equal on the frontier, where every man relied on his neighbour, regardless of the colour of his skin and regardless of the law’s unnatural strictures. Kennedy’s behaviour especially was a thing that made me very suspicious of the filmmakers’ motivations. He does not develop as a character either.

The twin evils of simplification and thin characterisation are amplified when you get to town. When the magistrate, Judge Taylor (Matt Day), gives his verdict in the case against Sam Kelly, the nondescript rabble of townsfolk physically encroach upon the perimeter of the courthouse – which the filmmakers chose to locate in the dirt immediately outside the town’s hotel – in a threatening manner in a way that is completely ahistorical at a time when the power of the crown was pervasive. Murmurs of shock? Yes. Threat of physical harm against a magistrate? Hardly likely. In fact, even having the court take place within the confines of the outback town is hard to credit given the context; in such a case, we know from the records, the case would likely have been held in Adelaide, the closest major population centre to the town of Alice Springs, in the environs of which the story unfolds.

The cinematography is outstanding on the other hand, and the scenes in the court where Judge Taylor questions Sam Kelly are laden with secondary signification, especially when the camera cuts to a tableau of watching Aborigines. It is their future as much as Sam Kelly’s that is being decided in the case, the cinematography implies wordlessly. What do the flint-edged words of the magistrate mean to people who were still classified as fauna, and not even as individuals with individuals’ rights? The state has a lot to answer for, it cannot be denied.

Making Fred Smith a wowser is a bit daft however. This character doesn’t need to be a devout Christian to be a champion of the rights of the Aborigines whose good offices he relies on for his living. Sam Kelly’s niece Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) develops more satisfactorily as a character even though, as in the case of Nell, she is almost mute. But as in the 2009 film that preceded this one by Thornton, ‘Samson & Delilah’, drawing stellar performances out of actors whose verbal delivery is exceptionally limited is a specialty of this director.

Another character who succeeds in convincing the viewer is the girlfriend of Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose name does not appear in the casting list online. She works in the town’s hotel and is also almost completely mute. Her role is to give some depth to a character – Fletcher – who nevertheless remains two-dimensional in the unsatisfactory and excessively binary duel between good and evil the film ultimately serves to offer up to the viewer. Although Morris’s performance is splendid, the European side in the clash is generally not well-crafted and so the film as a whole suffers from political correctness at the expense of the truth.

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