Sweet Country (2017 film)

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Sweet Country
Film poster
Directed byWarwick Thornton
Written byDavid Tranter
Steven McGregor
Produced byGreer Simpkin
David Jowsey
StarringSam Neill
Bryan Brown
Hamilton Morris
CinematographyWarwick Thornton
Edited byNick Meyers
Release dates
  • 6 September 2017 (2017-09-06) (Venice)
  • 25 January 2018 (2018-01-25) (Australia)
Running time
113 minutes

Sweet Country is a 2017 Australian drama film, directed by Warwick Thornton. Set in 1929 in the sparsely populated outback of the Northern Territory and based on a series of true events, it tells a harsh story against the backdrop of a divided society (between the British settlers and Aboriginal Australians) in the interwar period in Australia.

It was first screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival in September 2017 and after winning the Special Jury Prize award there, went on to win several awards internationally.


Sam Kelly is a middle-aged Aboriginal farm worker in the outback of Australia's Northern Territory some time after the end of the First World War. His employer, Fred Smith, a kindly preacher, agrees to lend Sam, his wife, Lizzie, and his niece, Lucy, to a bitter, abusive, and alcoholic veteran of World War I named Harry March on a neighbouring farm to renovate the latter's paddock fences. After sending Sam out to round up some cattle, Harry rapes Lizzie, and threatens to skin her and Sam and rape Lucy if Lizzie tells Sam. Sam's relationship with Harry quickly deteriorates.

Later, Harry visits the farm on which Sam works looking for a runaway Aboriginal youth named Philomac, who had escaped after Harry had chained him up to stop him from stealing. Harry fires rifle shots into the house then kicks in the door, leading Sam (who is inside with Lizzie) to pick up a gun and kill Harry in self-defence.

Sam goes on the run from the law, setting out with Lizzie across the outback. The manhunt for Sam is led by Sergeant Fletcher, who has to contend with the heat, venomous animals, and Aboriginal warriors. Eventually Sam and Lizzie return to turn themselves in, while Fletcher has a gallows constructed and tries to influence the judge who comes to the town to conduct the trial. More details emerge and Sam is acquitted. As he leaves the town in a horse and buggy, he is killed by a sniper.



The storyline of the film was inspired by the true story of an Australian Aboriginal man named Wilaberta (or Wilberta or Willaberta) Jack in 1929 and his shooting of ANZAC veteran Harry Henty.[2][3] Scriptwriter for the film, David Tranter, had previously made a short documentary of the story named Willaberta Jack, which had been nominated for Best Documentary in the Winnipeg Indigenous Film Festival in 2007. Willaberta Jack was his great-uncle and they lived north of Alice Springs.[4][5]

The Northern Territory was officially part of the colony of New South Wales from 1825 to 1863; it then became part of the colony of South Australia from 1863 to 1 January 1911, when it became a separate federal territory, and remains so today.[6]

Themes and genre[edit]

The film is an example of the "meat pie Western", a name used to describe Western-style films set in the Australian outback, although set in more recent times than most in the genre,[7][8] and rather than tell a simple narrative, it also exposes severe racism unapologetically.[9] One reviewer muses on the label "neo-Western", which invokes a very old genre (including the classic Western doomed hero character) as well as a "sense of newness and revival".[10]

Set in outback Northern Territory about ten years after World War I, rather than the earlier colonial or pre-federation period of Australia's history of many traditional westerns, the film deals with the effects of the war on its white inhabitants, the extreme racism and slavery which existed at that time and how Indigenous workers were used to build the country,[2] and personal morality.[8] It also shows a world where women have little power.[9] Fred is a White character who shows kindness and morality, but even the worst villain (Harry) is also shown as a victim of life in the trenches of the war, who has returned damaged. The film is more than just a story or period piece; it aims to help Australians to understand their history and its legacy in the present time.[8]

The characters and story play out against the character of the harsh yet visually stunning country, and the cinematography is an essential element of the film.[2]


The film was shot largely at Ooraminna Station, a cattle station about 40 kilometres (25 mi) south of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, not far from the Simpson Desert. A town built on the station for the film The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (directed by Leah Purcell[11][12]), which included a police station and general store, was used for the town scenes. Many cast members were Aboriginal Australians and locals from Alice Springs were employed as extras.[13]


The film was well received by critics and audiences alike, winning the Audience Award at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival.

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 96% based on 91 reviews, with an average rating of 8.21/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Sweet Country makes brilliant use of the Australian outback as the setting for a hard-hitting story that satisfies as a character study as well as a sociopolitical statement".[14] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 87 out of 100, based on 21 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[15]

It received positive reviews from many reviewers,[2][9][8][16] with one calling it Thornton's second masterpiece, and one of the best Westerns and Australian films of the century.[10]

Film festivals and awards[edit]

Sweet Country premiered at the 74th Venice Film Festival on 6 September 2017, where it won the Special Jury Prize award.[17][18] Shown in the Platform section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival,[19][20] it won the Platform Prize.[21] It won the Audience Award at the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival[22] and the Best Feature Film at the 2017 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.[23]


Award Category Subject Result
AACTA Awards
Best Film David Jowsey Won
Greer Simpkin Won
Best Direction Warwick Thornton Won
Best Original Screenplay Steven McGregor Won
David Tranter Won
Best Actor Hamilton Morris Won
Best Supporting Actress Natassia Gorey-Furber Nominated
Best Cinematography Warwick Thornton Won
Best Editing Nick Meyers Won
Best Sound Sam Gain-Emery Nominated
Thom Kellar Nominated
Will Sheridan Nominated
David Tranter Nominated
Best Costume Design Heather Wallace Nominated
AACTA International Awards
Best Direction Warwick Thornton Nominated
Adelaide Film Festival
Best Feature Won


  1. ^ "Made in SA Showcase". SAFC. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d Hall, Simon (3 January 2019). "Film Review: Sweet Country". Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  3. ^ "Wilberta Jack acquitted". Northern Standard. No. 47. Northern Territory, Australia. 2 August 1929. p. 5. Retrieved 22 May 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ "Willaberta Jack (from the CAAMA Collection)". Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  5. ^ Jowsey, David (22 October 2022). "The Year that Made Me: David Jowsey, 2011" (audio + text). ABC Radio National (Interview). Sunday Extra. Interviewed by Morrow, Julian. Retrieved 25 October 2022. (around the 14th minute)
  6. ^ "Some known frontier conflicts in the Northern Territory". Australian Frontier Conflicts 1788-1940s. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  7. ^ Lennon, Troy (21 January 2018). "Australian 'meat pie' westerns have been around for more than a century". Daily Telegraph. Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  8. ^ a b c Hillis, Eric (22 March 2018). "Review: "Sweet Country"". New Jersey Stage. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  9. ^ a b Buckmaster, Luke (24 January 2018). "With Godless and Sweet Country, the western is alive and bristling with energy". Daily Review. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  10. ^ "The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2020) - The Screen Guide". Screen Australia. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  11. ^ "Leah Purcell starts shooting 'The Drover's Wife the Legend of Molly Johnson'". IF Magazine. 23 October 2019. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  12. ^ Hose, Nick (27 November 2016). "Alice Springs filmmaker returns to desert to share tale of rough justice". ABC News. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  13. ^ "Sweet Country (2018)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  14. ^ "Sweet Country Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Top 5 Movies In The World (May 2018)". WittyJoe. 5 March 2018. Archived from the original on 8 June 2019. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  16. ^ Anderson, Ariston (9 September 2017). "Venice: Guillermo del Toro Wins Golden Lion for 'The Shape of Water'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  17. ^ Anderson, Ariston (27 July 2017). "Venice Competition Includes Films From George Clooney, Guillermo del Toro, Darren Aronofsky". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  18. ^ Kay, Jeremy (3 August 2017). "'The Death Of Stalin' to open Toronto Film Festival Platform programme". Screen Daily. Screen International. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  19. ^ Lodge, Guy (7 September 2017). "Venice Film Review: 'Sweet Country'". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved 7 September 2017.
  20. ^ Vlessing, Etan (17 September 2017). "Toronto: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' Captures Audience Award". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  21. ^ Bunya Productions: Sweet Country
  22. ^ "Australia's Sweet Country Wins Best Feature Film At 11th Asia Pacific Screen Awards". Asia Pacific Screen Awards. 24 November 2017. Retrieved 23 February 2018.
  23. ^ "Winners & Nominees". AACTA. Retrieved 4 December 2018.
  24. ^ "Warwick Thornton on Sweet Country: 'Australia is ready for films like this'". The Guardian. 23 January 2018. Retrieved 4 July 2019.

Further reading[edit]

True story origin[edit]

Film reviews[edit]

Analysis of issues[edit]

External links[edit]