A pot of oil-black coffee is bubbling violently over a fire, then a stream of pure white sugar is poured into the brew. Out of shot, there is cursing in mixed dialects and the sounds of thudding fists.
The opening scene is Warwick Thornton’s (The Darkside, Samson & Deliilah) most iconic from Sweet Country—his bitter retelling of Australia’s challenging racial past.
Plainly taking inspiration from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Thornton borrows from the arid, wickedly faith led world of Daniel Day Lewis’ prospector Daniel Plainview to tell a damning story of outback Australia in the late 1920s. Like Anderson’s acclaimed drama, churches are seminally erected, there are adversarial preachers, domineering machismo and, naturally, significant uses of blood.
One clear difference is that Sweet Country is about the sins of man, plural. There is no leading character—more separate spokes that feed into a central plot.
Sam, Hamilton Morris (8MMM Aboriginal Radio (TV)), is a greying Aboriginal man who works for a preacher in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. The preacher is Fred Smith, Sam Neill (Hunt For The Wilderpeople, The Commuter), a morally progressive man who sees ‘blacks’ as equals. Harry March, Ewen Leslie (Top Of The Lake (TV), The Railway Man), is a troubled ex-serviceman who drinks alone at night to numb the pain of war. Sergeant Fletcher, Bryan Brown (Cocktail, Two Hands) is committed to upholding law and order in his small town.
The women barely have voices to speak with, even when they’re demanded to. This Australian outback is a man’s world. It’s where women clean and be ‘with child’. It’s sad then, that gender inequality isn’t given much attention; it’s just there.
Racial hatred is the focus of the morality message. Preacher Smith’s faith and Christianity in general is used as a moral compass of sorts, generally teaming the good hearted believers in one camp, and the unspecifieds in the other.
Working man Sam and his wife Lizzie, Natassia Gorey Furber live on Smith’s plot. The three share a table for evening meals; there is respect and understanding in their relationship. When veteran Harry March asks Smith for Sam’s help over on his newly acquired outpost, Smith agrees and Sam and Lizzie leave for the March’s station.
March’s tone quickly changes when alone on his ranch with Sam, Lizzie and Lizzie’s niece. March asks Sam how old his niece is, but when Sam dodges his questions he settles for Sam’s wife instead. Sam and his family are later turfed off March’s land and sent back to their home with Smith.
When March approaches his neighbour, a fellow patriot and racist, Mick Kennedy, Thomas M. Wright (Everest, Top Of The Lake (TV)), he plays the same game. He takes Kennedy’s black workers, including a young boy called Philomac, Trevon Doolan, and chains Philomac to a rock like a dog. When Philomac breaks free and runs away, March loses it and charges off on horseback in search of his prisoner.
With Smith in town, Sam and Lizzie are house sitting when March starts circling the house, rifle loaded, suspecting that Smith is harbouring Philomac.
When Sam shoots down March defending himself and his wife, a manhunt ensues.