Warwick Thornton, director
David Tranter & Steven McGregor, script
Starring: Hamilton Morris (Sam), Sam Neill (Fred), Bryan Brown (Sgt. Fletcher), Thomas M. Wright (Mick), Matt Day (Judge Taylor), Ewen Leslie (Harry)
Won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.
Australia, like Canada, has to answer for a litany of crimes against Indigenous people that span the centuries. While not everyone in either country would agree with that statement, it’s certain that the White-dominant cultural communities in both countries are trying to make amends.
Sweet County is the film that Jesse Wente, the Executive Director of Canada’s new Indigenous Screen Office, believes we should be making. Canada has never financed a period Western with enough of a budget to bring on major actors in character roles and enough time to make sure that every detail—costume, language, location—is absolutely correct.
Australia’s Sweet Country comes festooned with awards. The film won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice—both awards speaking to the reality that the film has already done radically well when judged by an “impartial” jury. Those juries saw what every critic will see: a tragedy played out in a slow, inexorable style that says a lot about what racism was like in the past, and what its heritage is like now.
Sweet Country is set in the 1920s, a period when cruelty and prejudice can be played out in a horrifyingly straightforward manner. Sam (Hamilton Morris), an Australian Aboriginal stockman is asked by the preacher who is his landlord (Sam Neill) to help out Harry, a shockingly violent War vet, with his land. He does so but is treated terribly by Henry. The next encounter ends in Henry’s deserved death but Sam knows that no Aboriginal will receive a fair trial for killing a White man, even in self-defense.
A good part of Sweet Country adheres to genre expectations as White pursuers led by Sgt. Fletcher (Bryan Brown) try to catch Sam, who knows the land far better than they do. Warwick Thornton, the film’s director, could have left the film with Sam’s apparent victory but Sweet Country is based on a real story, which needs to be told.
Sam comes back to “civilization” and stands trial for murder. Sweet Country offers a few surprises along the way, including during the trial, but the tone has been set quite emphatically from the beginning. This is a tragedy beautifully wrought—and it’s up to all of us to appreciate its lessons.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.