February 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Weatherill demand places Murray-Darling in jeopardy

EDITORIAL China completes island building in South China Sea

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens: wouldn't know a cowardly act if they did one

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Government forms say it is fluid gender marriage

FREEDOM AND LAW Gender and anti-discrimination: wedges between you and freedom

HISTORY A look back at B.A. Santamaria gives us a forward impulse

GENDER POLITICS Transgenderism: A state-sponsored religion

LAW AND SOCIETY Protecting freedom of religion in Australia

HISTORY Hungary, 62 years on from the anti-Soviet uprising

MUSIC Reel to real: Johann Johannsson, RIP

CINEMA Sweet Country: Sour taste of bush justice


BOOK REVIEW Lessons from the UK front of the GFC

BOOK REVIEW The dragon has woken and rumbled

BOOK REVIEW Recovery manual for morals and culture


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Sweet Country: Sour taste of bush justice

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, February 24, 2018

Warwick Thornton describes his new film, Sweet Country, as a western. Based on a true story, it is set in country Australia in the 1920s and takes as its theme a man who kills in defence of himself and his wife, and who then flees, afraid that he will not receive a fair trial. That man is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), a decent and hardworking Aboriginal stockman who works for the kind and genuine Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a staunch, Bible-reading but not Bible-bashing Christian who takes his faith seriously and treats his employees accordingly.

Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) are attacked by the broken and unstable Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in Fred’s home when he believes them to be harbouring a runaway Aboriginal boy, Philomac (played by twin brothers Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). Sam fires on March, killing him, and he and his wife go on the run, afraid that they’ll be convicted before even being tried.

They are pursued by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), with the help of neighbouring landowner Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) and Aboriginal stockman/tracker Archie (Gibson John), with Fred coming along to make sure they bring Sam back alive. The pursuit does not go smoothly, with Sam always one step ahead and the colonials facing challenges from a hostile environment – both human and natural.

Sweet Country could have been made as a simplistic politicised drama but, as with most Australian films, it shows an awareness of the roughness and multilayered complexity of its subject matter. Thornton is a proudly, and rightly acclaimed, Indigenous filmmaker, who also has fond memories of his schooling in New Norcia under the Benedictines and who knows there is more to any story than a tabloid headline might suggest. His characters are neither solely good nor bad, victims or masters of their circumstances. They make decisions with the hands they’re dealt by life and then have to live with the consequences.

Someone like March could have been written as a cardboard villain, a nasty racist who does truly abominable things – and he does do some truly abominable things – but instead we see him as a broken and traumatised man, an alcoholic veteran of the war in Europe, a man who, as Thornton himself says, should have stayed with his mates in the city instead of trying for a life in the bush.

Then there’s Philomac, an opportunist, a liar and a cheat, but also a victim of more powerful men, a bit like a character from Dickens. Fletcher is a dedicated lawman, one who really is committed to upholding the law, but who is not above brutality or possessive jealousy.

In this film the outback is itself a character – both as something that the Indigenous people have a long and deep connection with, a tradition stretching back before the Roman Empire, and as a frontier to be tamed by the modern world with all its technology, its law and its self-belief. This is reinforced by Thornton’s decision to have as the soundtrack the soundscape of the bush itself; the bird’s crying in the wilderness, horses hooves, the wind in the trees, the sizzle of the desert. An impression is given, of a place both forbidding and enticing, a place little understood and even less conducive to being “civilised”.

The town itself, when it is seen, is dusty and makeshift, all corrugated iron and rough-hewn wood. Unlike John Hillcoat’s chilling and masterful The Proposition, where the colonials at least try to bring the best and highest of British civilisation to the land, here they barely manage to set up a pub, and there is no church or hall in sight.

Taking its inspiration from the dark and violent westerns of Sergio Leone, Sweet Country is meant to confront and to unsettle, to challenge the preconceptions of viewers. Not content simply to bring up the less savoury aspects of Australia’s past, it also presents Christianity and the law itself in a positive light as forces for good – but forces whose depth is largely dismissed when inconvenient. There is a strong sense that everything is a bit of a mess, and that there are no easy solutions – then or now.

In this way, Sweet Country is a problem picture. It depicts a terrible situation, one that should have a satisfying solution but in reality does not. It is specific to its setting and characters, but executed in such a way that it becomes universal. In the end, Thornton shows the problem is not confined to a system or a heritage, but is embedded in the heart of mankind.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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