The second feature film from aboriginal director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah, made in 2009) gained a five minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival when it won the Special Jury Prise. It has accumulated several other awards.
Thornton was raised in Alice Springs, sent to school in New Norcia and began his film career making short films in 1996. He directs the cinematography in this film with his son Dylan River in the visually magnificent landscape of the vast expanses in outback Northern Territory.
The sensitive script is based on a story written by David Tranter and Stephen Mc Gregor about Tranter’s grandfather’s brother Wilaberta Jack. It follows the conventions of American western films where cowboys and indigenous people are often in conflict, a crime is committed and there is a chase after a suspect.
Set in 1920 in cattle station country where life is hard and women are few – middle-aged Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) work unpaid for Fred Smith (an almost unrecognizable bearded Sam Neill), a preacher without a church who believes that “We’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord”.
Even though Fred treats Sam with respect he “loans” him, his wife and niece to new settler Harry March (Ewen Leslie). Harry is a violent and bitter alcoholic war veteran with a vile temper. He treats his helpers with contempt and shocking cruelty and he brutally rapes Lizzie (in a largely blacked out scene).
Sam kills him in self-defence and he and Lizzie, now pregnant, go on the run. A pose of five headed by Sergeant Fletcher (Brian Brown) with aboriginal tracker Archie (Gibson John) set off on horseback to capture him. In a futile chase in unfamiliar country they are unsuccessful – but Sam and Lizzie give themselves up for the sake of the baby and a trial takes place in an open-air courtroom.
Largely nonprofessional aboriginal actors, wonderful cinema photography and good storytelling exploring themes of law, ethics and justice which are part of Australian history and could make this film an Australian classic.
Showing at Luna Leederville and Luna SX from 25 January.
Watch the trailer…