In recent times, Australia has been in the news for its mistreatment of immigrants and just today a judge ordered the payment of compensation for detainees at the Manus Island offshore immigration centre. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, showing in Venice in competition, deals with Australia’s mistreatment of its indigenous population and reminds us that the issue of racism in his country has remained constant throughout its recent history.

Based on a true story, the film is set just after World War One, when an indigenous man is accused of killing a white farmer.  It opens with the Aborigine Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) in chains in what appears to be an open-air court. We then move back in time to be properly introduced to Sam and the other main characters. Sam works on a farm for Fred Smith (Sam Neill) and when a new neighbour comes calling we quickly learn that Fred is a true Christian, sharing his home with his native workers, introducing them to his God and treating them with dignity and respect.

The neighbour is Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a drunk who has recently returned from the war with a bad case of PTSD (laid on a little too thickly) and who in inebriated moments believes he is in the army. When Sam, his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and niece go to March’s smallholding to help out, trouble ensues. Lizzie is raped, but keeps silent, and the niece is dispatched into town. Meanwhile, we meet another smallholder, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright). He has a nasty temper himself and treats his mixed-race son Philomac with contempt. No mother is seen or mentioned. When March borrows the boy from Kennedy, he meets his comeuppance after hunting the runaway boy down to Smith’s farm. Yet Smith is away and it is Sam who pulls the trigger in self defence.

When the local constabulary get involved, we meet another war veteran in the shape of Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown). He’s dating the owner of the town’s hotel, Nell (Anni Finsterer). I initially thought she was playing a mute as she didn’t speak for most of the film. And this is one of the issues with the movie: the women are either silent or barely have a voice. Lizzie, Nell, Nell’s daughter and Sam’s niece have about 5-6 minutes of dialogue in a 112-minute film, the daughter and niece sharing nary a line between them. It is unclear why Thornton chose to do this. Was it because women did not have a voice back then? Were they kept silent? Or is he just not interested enough in the women’s side of the story? I doubt the latter is the case, but perhaps the fact is that there were just not enough women’s voices in these men’s lives.

Sweet CountryWhat does work beautifully, however, is Thornton’s use of flashbacks and flashforwards. As these scenes appear, the audience has to remember or anticipate another piece of this jigsaw story. And as many of the scenes are blood-splattered, there is a sense of real foreboding. The characters are well nuanced, particularly the bad guys. They offer glimpses of decency and this gives hope for the future as the white men’s animosity towards the Aboriginals is chipped away at. As usual, Sam Neill puts in an understated performance full of depth and humanity while Bryan Brown, such a stalwart of Australian cinema, is excellent as the persistent, flawed sergeant. Morris, in his first major film role, is more than a match for these two Antipodean film greats and exudes quiet dignity and honour.

This is an extremely complex film about race and the aftermath of war, and about not just the rape of a woman, but of a land and a heritage. As you might expect from this experienced cinematographer, it is beautifully filmed work with breath-taking imagery. It is also a timely reflection on Australia’s innate and continued racism shared with and propagated by so many countries. Like the Terence Hill and Bud Spencer characters of the movies he says he was so inspired by, Thornton does not pull any punches.