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Senior Citizen Kane Club: Sweet Country

Warwick Thornton

It has been a long wait since Warwick Thornton’s astonishing debut film Samson and Delilah, which screened at DCA in 2010, but it has been worth it. With the stark beauty of the Northern Territories as its backdrop, Sweet Country quietly but fiercely looks at the racial divide of a small community in 1920s Australia.

Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a devout Christian rancher, lives on a remote cattle station with his Aboriginal head stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and Sam’s young wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). Smith treats them both with respect, but his neighbour Mick Kennedy (Peaky Blinders’ Thomas M Wright) is more controlling of his workers, particularly teenager Philomac (a role shared by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). Kennedy pales in comparison to new rancher Harry March (Ewen Leslie) who arrives with a drink problem and full of rage. Without any “blackstock” of his own, March asks his neighbours if he can borrow their workers until he gets himself on his feet. Reluctantly, Sam, Lizzie and Philomac are despatched, but it isn’t long before March’s sadistic nature culminates in an incident where, in self-defence, Sam is pushed to the limit, with dire consequences. Under no illusion about the punishment that society will impose on him, Sam and Lizzie escape into the bush. They are pursued across the countryside by tenacious police chief Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and a posse that includes Smith and Kennedy, both of whom have very different motives for trying to track down the elusive Sam.

The cat and mouse chase that follows plays out like a classic Western, full of tension and featuring an unforgiving landscape and heart-stopping moments. Playing alongside veterans like Neill and Brown, non-professional actors Morris, the Doolan brothers and Gorey-Furber are all superb, acutely capturing the resignation, rage and dignity of those who have been subjected to extreme cruelty on their own land.