REVIEW: Sweet Country

Hannah Parker reviews the latest film from Australia that everybody’s talking about…


Content note for discussion of sexual abuse.

We’ve seen many depictions of abuse towards black people in America from Hollywood over the years, but Australia is a country that’s fairly untouched. Black slavery still existed down under, and white supremacy was rife in the 1920’s. But this isn’t so much a story about slavery, but rather a story of no hope.

The story begins with an aboriginal man, Sam (played by Hamilton Morris) and his wife and niece helping out a white man named Harry (played by Ewan Leslie). Although Sam and his family live in an area of Australia that treats aboriginal people as equals, Harry is an alcoholic that still sees black people as his play toys – in more ways than one.

This feeling of entitlement Harry possesses rears its ugly head when he rapes Sam’s wife. As far as sexual abuse scenes go, this one is clever. He slowly walks around the cabin closing every window, all the while creating more tension. When the act is committed, the room is pitch black, which means although you hear the very quick and abusive act, you see nothing. But you don’t need to see anything. You know exactly what’s going on, you feel just as uncomfortable, and if anything, it diminishes any sense of sexual pleasure, showing the act is purely for Harry to assert his power.

Sam and his family finish their duties and return home, but when Harry takes a young boy named Philomac (played by Tremayne Doolan), it doesn’t take long until Sam and Harry are embroiled in a fight. Philomac escapes, and takes refuge at the house Sam is staying in. But Harry begins shooting holes into the house, convinced Sam must know where the boy is. Although Sam is none-the-wiser, Harry doesn’t listen and eventually Sam is forced to shoot Harry in self-defence. This is where the story truly begins.

As Sam knows that he’ll be prosecuted and hanged for killing a white man – even in self defence – he takes his wife on the run with him. And this is where the story truly begins.

Films depicting people on the run are often jam-packed full of action. From a ten-minute long fight scene to a shoot-off with about six different guns and literally running from ‘bad men’, it never seems to slow down. But Sweet Country is different. It’s gentle – mostly because of Sam’s gentle nature. It’s respectful of he and his family’s story. It tells you everything you need to know and keeps your intrigue in the softest and quietest way, and that’s what makes this film so uniquely beautiful.

“It tells you everything you need to know and keeps your intrigue in the softest and quietest way, and that’s what makes this film so uniquely beautiful”

The nature of which the local white Australians treat Sam purely because of the colour of his skin is something we’ve seen time and time again in Hollywood. What we haven’t seen, however, is a fair judge. He is also white, however he listens to Sam, he stays non-biased and makes his judgement based on the events that occurred. It’s almost surprising in itself to see a successful, well-off white man of the 1920’s proving himself to not be racist. But the simplistic and blunt way in which the character is played makes it believable none the less.

This isn’t an unrealistic movie. It’s based on a true story and depicts the racism in 1920s Australia in a shocking yet believable way. You feel warmth towards Sam, and hatred towards Harry. But all the other characters are a little more complex and you’re left to decide yourself who’s bad and who’s good. Or perhaps the lesson is that everyone has both bad and good in them. Sam after all does almost blame his wife for the rape she endured in one moment of mild rage. And Harry is a war veteran dealing with depression and addiction.

This film is completely original in its’ take on racism. The Australian personality comes through, giving it a much different feel to any American films based around racism and slavery. But also, the black man we’re following isn’t a slave, he’s free and treated as an equal in his village. Despite this, he still endures abuse and hatred from white folks. It’s a clever, soft yet startling telling of the injustices that not so long ago took place on our planet. Unfortunately, these injustices still exist today in some way or another, and perhaps this movie should act as a wake up call.

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