Natassia Gorie Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country. IMDB
The opening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) is as prosaic as it is poetic. A battle-scarred billy on a roaring campfire has come to the boil. Into its churning depths an unidentified hand drops a palmful of tea, followed by two more of sugar. Just enough to sweeten its otherwise pungent bitterness.
Off-screen, from what feels to be another time and space, we hear a wildly enraged whitefella insulting an all-but-silent blackfella. The taunt “black bastard” is barked with undiluted contempt. Over the course of the film, this pointed juxtaposition of sound and image will be used, in concert with a series of fleeting flashbacks and flashforwards, to both layer and unfold an acutely tragic narrative.
Thornton’s sensitively scripted story, which draws on the conventions of the western, is simple. Its social and ethical implications, though, are not. In self-defence, an Indigenous man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) shoots and kills a local landowner, Harry March (Ewan Leslie).
Only later, while they are on the run, does Kelly learn that March raped and impregnated his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). After they return and surrender themselves, this information has a decisive impact on the outcome of his trial and its traumatic aftermath.
In their film, set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, Thornton and his scriptwriters generate a great deal of complexity from a relatively straightforward plot. For example, although the landowner for whom Kelly and Lizzie work, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), says he regards them as equals, this does not prevent him from “loaning” them to March and, in doing so, considering himself a good Christian. Likewise, March’s “borrowing” of them to help him work his land is clearly motivated more by a compulsion to abuse and terrorise them than a genuine need for their labour.