Sweet Country, a new Australian film starring Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, has gained immediate recognition worldwide, winning a raft of awards and receiving standing ovations at major film festivals.

The second feature film from acclaimed Indigenous director, Warwick Thornton, Sweet Country has won the Special Jury Prize at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, the Platform Prize at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Best Fiction Feature at the Adelaide Film Festival 2017, and Best Feature Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

On top of these awards, the film has been selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival — an unprecedented move as Sundance usually only screens premieres of new films not seen at any other international competition.

A gritty western in outback Australia

Set in the outback of the Northern Territory in 1929, the film is a gritty and intense western inspired by real events. It tells the story of Sam Kelly, a middle-aged Aboriginal man who gets caught up in some violent events. Newcomer Hamilton Morris plays Sam, and we watch him react as the story unfolds under the harsh conditions of the outback.

Forty-seven-year-old Thornton grew up as part of the Indigenous community in Alice Springs and is best known for his 2009 directional debut, Samson and Delilah. Since then, Thornton has worked as a cinematographer on other projects but said when he saw the completed script from screenwriter, Steven McGregor, and his old friend and sound recordist, David Tranter, he “fell in love with it”.

Underneath the surface

On what attracted him to the film, Sam Neill said, “Pretty much what you see on the screen — which is to say a really ripping western on the surface and then — as you watch the film, you realise there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on underneath that western structure. I’ve always wanted to be in a western — it’s sort of an unfulfilled ambition.”

“And I thought, it’s Warwick directing it — I’m going to be part of it. There’s not necessarily going to be too many parts in Warwick’s films for old white blokes, so I thought I’d take the opportunity while I can,” laughed Neill.

“Plus, it’s really a profound story in many, many ways, and I think it was an important story to tell,” he added.

Bryan Brown said, “It was a good strong story as I read it on the page, and I loved Samson and Delilah, and I’d worked with Warwick a couple of years ago on one of his docos and enjoyed it. That relationship with director/actor was there.”

“And all of those things turned out to be truths,” continued Brown. “The fact that it was going to be hot, and we were going to be on horseback and all those things are actually really great. You know, you go — I’m going to feel this movie. I’m not going to walk away from it going, ‘Well, that was a nice couple of scenes in a kitchen with somebody’. It’s going to be different, and that’s sort of exciting.”

A silent score

In an unusual move, Thornton has used no music in the soundtrack for Sweet Country. Instead, the sound of the cicadas and the sand crackling between someone’s toes is what you hear — rippling with intensity. Thornton’s beautiful cinematography transports you to the outback, and as you watch the film, you can feel it in every cell of your body.

Thornton said he made the film this way because “I’m not trying to blow smoke anywhere but the problem with a score is it’s abused, and it’s used to make people happy, sad, or to change the pace — all that kind of thing. And it shouldn’t be there for that reason.”

“I like the idea that you created challenges for yourself and if you take away the score, well these guys [Thornton points to Neill and Brown] have to act their bums off. So it creates a challenge that if you get it right, it creates a really beautiful truth for a film,” he said.

Now showing nationally in Australian cinemas, Sweet Country was produced by Bunya Productions, with major production investment and development support from Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department, in association with the South Australian Film Corporation, Create NSW, Screen Territory, and the Adelaide Film Festival.