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Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber in Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country.

Bunya Productions

When director Warwick Thornton first read the script for Sweet Country, the potent Australian drama that won the Platform Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, he did so with trepidation. Based on a local story about an Aboriginal man running from the law, it was written by his boyhood friend, the film-industry sound recordist David Tranter: He had to be honest, but what would Thornton say if the script wasn’t any good?

Luckily, Thornton fell in love with what he describes as a simple western – “a guy shoots a guy; he goes on the run; a posse arrives; it tracks him down” – and signed on to direct a film in which he would turn this archetypal story into something specifically and hauntingly Australian.

Director Warwick Thornton poses during a portrait session during the 14th annual Dubai International Film Festival on Dec. 9, 2017.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for DIFF

Both he and Tranter are Aboriginal, from neighbouring peoples in the Northern Territory, and grew up in Alice Springs, in the heart of Australia’s Red Centre. The script Tranter showed Thornton is based on the actual case of an Aboriginal man named Wilaberta Jack who was acquitted for shooting a white settler in self-defence in that area in 1929, but Tranter’s knowledge of it was as a story recounted by his grandfather.

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“We’re not part of the history books,” Thornton said during a phone interview from Sydney, where Sweet Country made its debut in January. “It’s not taught in schools; it comes from an oral history, our grandfathers and grandmothers telling us stories.… When we do make films, it’s the first time it gets set in stone … or celluloid, so it’s really important we get the story right.”

The story as Tranter wrote it was a “clear, basic western, with good guys and bad guys,” Thornton recalls. That was its attraction, but Thornton’s job was to make things more complicated.

In the final film, the character of Sam Kelly, played by the powerfully impassive Hamilton Morris, is indisputably justified in shooting the raving racist Harry March (Ewen Leslie), but all the other good guys and bad guys are multifaceted. Sam’s boss, the preacher Fred Smith (played by the familiar New Zealand star Sam Neill), is humane and well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual. The lawman Sergeant Fletcher (well-known Australian actor Bryan Brown) is merciless in his obsessive quest to find Sam yet admirable in other ways. Meanwhile, the vicious March is a horrible character, but he is also revealed to be suffering from shell shock.

The way that information is relayed is also typical of Thornton’s complicating hand.

Throughout Sweet Country – which does not have a musical score – there are brief and completely silent scenes that the audience gradually realizes represent thoughts, memories, flashbacks or premonitions. March, for example, does tell Smith that he has fought the Germans on the Western Front, but, as he offers the preacher a bottle of booze in exchange for help on his ranch, it’s the quick and utterly silent image of him raging drunkenly by his own fireside that reveals the reality of this dangerous man.

“They aren’t actually written in the script,” Thornton says of these passages. “I had a weirdo director’s epiphany on the first day of shooting that I needed shades of grey; I needed to see inside a mind. I need to see fear.” He points out that neither dialogue nor facial expressions reveal a whole character and he saw this as a way of bridging that gap.

The technique, hinting at premonitions of Sam’s fate or exposing interior lives, infuses the classic western plot of frontier justice with a sense of Aboriginal spirituality, an effect then further heightened as Sam and his wife Lizzie flee the posse of white men into the mountains and desert they know so well. Thornton purposefully cast Morris, a non-professional actor and school teacher who he recruited in Alice Springs, because he was looking for someone who he felt could reveal a spiritual connection to the land: The film was shot in the MacDonnell Ranges, the mountains around Alice Springs.

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“We have our own version of A-list actors in Australia, and there are Indigenous actors who are amazing but I didn’t want to work with them: I wanted someone who was from the country we were shooting in … I was looking for someone connected to the spirit of the country [whose] family has gone through the same journey as what actually happens in the film. There’s an internal knowledge they have already. I went back to Alice Springs and that is where I found Hamilton; he has that beautiful kind of persona and the camera would recognize that.”

He then cast another non-professional, Natassia Gorey Furber, as Sam’s wife Lizzie, and asked her to finesse one of the more difficult moments in the script, a rape scene. Thornton, who considers most sex scenes or nudity in film to be gratuitous, decided he couldn’t excise this one, but struggled to figure out how to shoot it.

“I didn’t completely nail that scene until three days before shooting.… The makeup artist came to me and said, ‘Natassia is really nervous about it,’ and I said I have to pull my finger out, as the director, and confront the scene and do what I need to do.… I completely redesigned the scene.”

His solution was simply to show the rapist walking into the cabin where Lizzie is cleaning as though he owned her and begin methodically shutting the shutters. The audience knows exactly what is coming next.

“The audience goes to a place that is probably a whole lot darker than anything I could have created,” Thornton said.

On a lighter note there is Philomac, the young boy played by Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, twins from a remote community north of Alice Springs. Philomac, who adds both suspense and a note of comedy to Sweet Country, sees the shooting and knows the truth but is too fearful – or perhaps too mischievous – to come forward. He is an audience’s hope and its despair, as justice seems determined to elude the fleeing Sam. For all his youth, the role Philomac plays is that of history: He represents the screenwriter’s grandfather witnessing this story.

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Sweet Country opens April 13 in Toronto.

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