Director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, Green Bush) returns to world cinema screens with Sweet Country, an Australian frontier western set in the Northern Territory in 1929.

Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) works for kind-hearted priest Fred Smith (Sam Neill).

The new station manager, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), approaches Smith, asking for the help of Sam, his wife and niece, to do some work on his property.

Harry’s deteriorating mental health and malice toward Sam and his family result in a shootout which ends with Sam killing Harry in self-defence. With his pregnant wife Lizzie, Sam goes on the run into the beautiful but harsh, unforgiving desert country.

Bryan Brown plays Sergeant Fletcher, a man driven by his own sense of importance and rough justice, who leads a posse to track down Sam and bring him to trial. Matt Day gives a solid performance in the role of Judge Taylor, summoned to oversee the court proceedings.

Steven McGregor and David Tranter’s powerful script conveys themes of colonialism, racism, dispossession, and the importance of the Indigenous Australian connection to country. However, the overarching theme of the film is injustice, illustrated in the brutal treatment of the film’s Aboriginal characters.

Sweet Country was shot by Thornton with Dylan River and despite the low budget, the locations used provide spectacular backdrops highlighting the vastness, beauty, and isolation of Australia’s outback.

The film is tense throughout, often disturbing. No music is used, but the sound design more than makes up for this, and together with fine scripting and performances it is central to the unease created in many scenes. Short “flashes” of events yet-to-happen add an ominous element at times.

There are a few moments of comic relief, most provided by the antics of Aboriginal boy Philomac, artfully played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan.

Thornton has created another superb film with another story that needed to be told. No doubt there are more to come.

Sweet Country opens in Australian cinemas 25 January.

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