Just over eight years since his debut film Samson & Delilah (2009), Warwick Thornton returns to feature-length filmmaking with Sweet Country, a drama depicting race relations in the Australian Northern Territory outback of the 1920’s.
The film’s main focus is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an aboriginal farmhand who is forced to go on the run when he kills a white man in self defense. From there, he and his wife (Natassia Gorey Furber) are forced to brave the dangerous Australian outback as a posse of vengeful villagers give chase. Among the pursuers are Sam’s friend and the local pastor Fred (Sam Neill) and a lawman intent on bringing Sam in (Bryan Brown).
There’s little else to really say regarding Sweet Country‘s plot as that’s pretty much it, bar an unengaging and half-finished subplot regarding a young Aborigine slave and his white master/father. The story is little more then a drawn out chase followed by some meandering legal fluff, not helped by the stark lack of characterization. The film goes some way in shining a light on slavery and the racial injustice that occurred throughout this period in Australian history, but it fails to find an emotional hook to draw us in. Instead it’s simply content to just hit the same familiar beats from other films that dealt with this sensitive subject matter to a more successful degree.
The direction certainly tries to make up for this, employing some gorgeous, beautifully lit cinematography that truly captures the size and majesty of the locations. The pace is slow and restrained, but occasionally bursts with moments of intensity (though these moments are sparse). Letting the side down though are the jarring jump cuts to shots from upcoming scenes, which border on pretentiousness and do very little to enhance the drama.
Technical aspects aside, Sweet Country suffers most due to the lack of any emotional connection to the characters or their plight. A decent cast assemble to bring life to the story, but the script and direction are pretty lifeless and devoid of sentiment. Even the character of Sam, who by all rights should capture the sympathies of the audience from the off, instead comes across as stoic, uninvolving and, in one particular scene, even cruel. Sam Neill brings a bit of heart and soul to proceedings as Fred, but any life he injects into the film is countered by the sheer emptiness of every other character.
Despite its obvious good intentions, Sweet Country meanders and stumbles throughout it’s 2 hour run-time, failing to elicit a hint of emotion from what should by all rights be a film that has it in abundance. The obvious plotting and dull characters, coupled with moments of self-importance, result in a film that feels average at best, cliched at worst. As a film that deals with a sensitive and, until recently, taboo subject from Australian history, it never goes far enough to have the desired effect it strives for.