Review / ‘Sweet Country’ (MA) ****and a half

ON August 3, 1929, the “Northern Standard” reported the trial, in the Supreme Court of Central Australia at Darwin before Judge Mallam and a jury, of Wilberta Jack, charged with murdering Harry Henty.

That report and the court transcript are the probable basis of a screenplay by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, on which director Warwick Thornton has overlaid cultural, environmental and emotional elements reflecting his own Aboriginality.

Uncluttered by fashionable new film-faking technology, “Sweet Country” tells of outback oppression, brutality and racial prejudice, served with strong measures of compassion, excitement and verity. Its principal characters are exemplars for two white-fella groups, one disposed to accept Aborigines as fellow humans, the other which regards Aborigines as a resource to be exploited, abused at will and, some might say, enslaved for a meagre ration of flour, tea and sugar.

In his film debut, Hamilton Morris projects a powerful talent as a dignified Sam Kelly, the film’s doppelganger for Wilberta Jack. Sam Neill plays Fred Smith, grazier, returned soldier and committed Christian.

Sam Kelly and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) are house-sitting Fred’s property. It comes down to who will pull the trigger first – Sam or Harry March (Ewen Leslie) who, having raped Lizzie a few days earlier, is at the front door threatening to shoot unless he gets anotherie.

Much of the film’s middle accompanies the team, led by Police Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), which sets out to capture Sam and Lizzie who in their own time return to town voluntarily. Sam’s trial for murdering Harry takes place under white man’s law outside the local pub before Judge Taylor (Matt Day) followed by a brief, sad envoi.

With superior production values, “Sweet Country” moved me intensely in good ways. Its few moments when details are not quite correct don’t detract from a powerful Australian experience uncluttered with a musical score – a recent report quotes Thornton saying he didn’t want to dictate emotion to the audience. How I wish other filmmakers would follow that example. The silence of its bush locations is beautiful.

At Palace Electric

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