My introduction to the Aborigines was in the western Quigley Down Under. I was only 12 so hadn’t known Australia had its own indigenous people who were mistreated by white settlers. At that point maybe I didn’t even know the truth about how our own country treated Native Americans, but I knew inherently that people should not be persecuted. That was the setting for another noble white cowboy hero to save the day. Sweet Country really goes there with the point of view of Aborigines characters.
Fred Smith (Sam Neill) does not keep “black stock” as other Australians call Aborigines. He hires them as equal labor. Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) knows not everyone is as progressive as his boss. He tries to keep his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and niece Lucy safe, but racist, violent white men still come after them. When Sam kills Harry Marsh (Ewan Leslie) in self-defense, he flees, leading Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to pursue Sam for trial.
It is really satisfying when Sam defends himself, even though it’s only going to bring with it more white posses. This is really tough, unrelenting violence against women and children, but it has to be real. The opening sequence only presents a beating in sound effects, which are brutal enough to make the point.
Sweet Country is a quest to find Sam. Along the way, Fred and Fletcher encounter other tribes and unforgiving nature. This film does end in the trial and that’s just as bad. Sam has to answer questions about the abuse his family suffered.
The dialect is really tough. It’s so thick, but it’s authentic. At least when the Kellys speak Aboriginal with subtitles, you can read what they’re saying. Sometimes they subtitle the English but it’s hit and miss. Everything in the story is understood, but it’s another layer of authenticity that challenges modern audiences.
It’s easy to see why Sweet Country has made the festival rounds and ended up at Sundance as a Spotlight film. It is the voice of a distinct filmmaker from a distinct nation and I’m glad I got to experience it.