The Outback around Alice Springs in 1920, and the white settlers there have essentially enslaved many of the Aborigines who used to live there as free men, treating them exactly how they want, and rarely well. The indigenous people who are in this situation have little choice in the matter, and more or less knuckle down as life out there is tough for everyone, white and black alike, but there is a new arrival in the region, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), fresh from the Great War which has left him deeply disturbed. Therefore, when one of the more benevolent locals, Fred Smith (Sam Neill) lends him one of his men, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), the scene is set for trouble...
Australian Westerns are tricky beasts, for there is a line they don't always cross between working out what makes them Westerns and what has left them as an Australian tale that has nothing to do with the Hollywood idea of the genre, and more to do with the experience of their pasts. What made Sweet Country ideally placed in that style was the issue of race, which was not always considered by the American versions, certainly it took some time for American natives and the slaves brought in from abroad to be recognised in the form as citizens who had as much right to be where they were as anyone who claimed to be ruling the place, and that generated guilt, latterly.
In the Australian incarnation of this feeling, there was the same moves towards making up for the abuses of racism and prejudice and pure and simple slavery, which emerged in the New Wave movement of the nineteen-seventies, something director Warwick Thornton alluded to by editing his picture in a manner reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's groundbreaking Walkabout, that playing with time so much part of the off-kilter sense of place where the usual rules are no longer applying, and arguably never implemented quite as well in Roeg's first solo movie. That said, there was that in much of Australian film even if they didn't use the cut-up techniques the British director did.
But it was the injustice that Thornton and his screenwriters Steven McGregor and David Tranter preferred to concentrate on with their recreation of an actual account from one of Australia's most shameful episodes. A move towards explaining they had to get here from there, so it was a necessary transition to the twenty-first century nation that was able to look back and weigh up its excesses and issues that predominated in the tone. As with pretty much every film set in this country, landscape was a gift to the photography, Thornton capturing sweeping vistas as bleak and stark as anything in his character's souls, in particular when Sam goes on the run after defending himself against March, a man who has raped his wife and makes no secret of his identical intentions to Sam's niece.
It's safe to say the colonial whites did not come out of this very well, but there were indications of the more liberal attitude towards the Aborigines brought out in two characters most visibly. Fred is a decent man because of his religion, and while he can be patronising, his heart is in the right place and he treats all men (and women) as equal under God - a step in the right direction. The other man in that manner is the judge (Matt Day) who is brought in to put Sam on trial in the latter half of the film, and it is the real tragedy that despite his good intentions, the society he is presiding over has not caught up with him, and those like him, yet. This was not an easy film to get on with, as Thornton was only too keen to admit, but it did come across as a necessary one, showing just how bad people can be is an effective method of encouraging others to eschew that behaviour in the future after all. A harsh watch, then, and a brutal experience that could have gone even further, you suspect, but it lands every punch.
[Loads of interviews on Thunderbird's Blu-ray, plus an earlier short film by the director among the extras.]