Sweet Country

Review by Aimee Knight

Directed by

Warwick Thornton


Bryan Brown Matt Day Tremayne Doolan


I can’t get through the trailer without crying.


Wept so much I got a migraine.

In Retrospect.

A painfully real portrait of racism in Australia.

Warwick Thornton’s gorgeous period drama cuts to the heart of Australia’s dark colonial past.

Warwick Thornton was the first Indigenous Australian to win the Cannes Caméra d’Or, with his debut feature Samson and Delilah in 2009. He was the first Aboriginal man to direct a film selected for competition at the Venice Biennale, where Sweet Country won the Special Jury Prize and Venice Critic’s Award in 2017. Those tidbits may seem trivial. But given Australia’s historical, systemic and continued oppression of its First Nations peoples, the significance is epic – as is this film.

Set in Alice Springs during the 1920s and inspired by real events, Sweet Country charts the story of Indigenous stockman Sam (Hamilton Morris), who shoots station owner, drunkard and abuser Harry March (Ewen Leslie). When Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) flee, they’re pursued across the Northern Territory by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and his posse. Among the crew is godly neighbour Fred Smith (Sam Neill) and shady neighbour Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), lead by Mick’s ‘black stock’ tracker Archie (Gibson John).

This sunburnt saga of justice, endurance and toxic masculinity is Thornton’s first feature drama since his debut. The prolific filmmaker has been busy as a documentarian and cinematographer. Casting several fledgling actors, Thornton draws a soft, empathic performance from Gorey-Furber in her screen debut. Morris’ sense of pathos is similarly moving, and he holds his own opposite veterans such as Neill and Brown.

With Thornton himself behind the camera, the film cuts to the heart of isolation and displacement. Trekking across the frontier, the characters often resemble little plastic figures, soldiering into the distance. They march toward the mirage of a lucky country.

Much has been said and written of outback Australia’s ‘harsh beauty’ and ‘arid terror’. Most of it reeks of imperialism. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to describe the gravity of land to which you don’t have 60,000 years worth of emotional connection. But as Brown’s Sergeant Fletcher remarks, “There’s some sweet country out here.” He speaks to the weathered cliffs, lush waterholes, stark plains and infinite sky.

Sweet Country showcases this natural splendour (that which earned the Territory 2.6 billion tourist dollars in 2016). It’s notable that, during the era in which the story is set, Indigenous Australians were – by law – classed among this flora and fauna. Aboriginal people weren’t recognised as ‘people’ until 1967.

The consequences of white invasion endure in present day Australia. Sweet Country dramatises an historical (though not historic) anecdote, and it’s infused with tragic familiarity. If it weren’t for Australia’s restrictive firearm legislation, the incidents depicted here could still lurk within the realms of possibility. The attitude of characters like Harry March and Mick Kennedy definitely ring true. Fortunately, filmmakers like Thornton, Larissa Behrendt, Stephen Page and Tracey Moffatt are making tracks toward decolonising Australian cinema.

This review was written on the stolen lands of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I acknowledge their ongoing relationship to the land and pay my respects to Kaurna Elders – and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – past and present. Sovereignty was never ceded.

Published 9 Mar 2018

Tags: Warwick Thornton


I can’t get through the trailer without crying.


Wept so much I got a migraine.

In Retrospect.

A painfully real portrait of racism in Australia.

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