MANY like to think of Ned Kelly, Australia’s favourite 19th-century bushranger, as an Antipodean Robin Hood. His father was an Irish convict who had stolen two pigs; Kelly’s own criminal career began at 14 when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a Chinese pig farmer. Later he and his “band of brothers” formed the notorious Kelly Gang and robbed banks, stole horses and held up trains. They hated the establishment. They terrorised the public. Yet long after his execution in Melbourne in 1880, this bearded criminal is glorified in countless books, films, statues, paintings and songs. On the Australian government’s website he was once declared one of the country’s “greatest folk heroes” (the page seems to have been quietly removed in the past couple of years). 

This hero status is a fallacy. As Warwick Thornton, an indigenous Australian film-maker, has pointed out: “Ned Kelly didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor. Ned Kelly stole from the rich and the poor and kept it all for himself.” In “Sweet Country”, Mr Thornton presents Sam Kelly as a new mythical Kelly for modern Australia. An indigenous farmhand (played by Hamilton Morris), he ends up on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) after killing a white man in self-defence. The man he kills is Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a deranged, drunk, violent pastoralist who spent “three years fighting for the posh” and sees indigenous people as “blackstock” to rape, abuse and exploit. 

The film is styled as a Western but set in the outback in 1929, as colonial settlers were charging north to grab land and make their fortunes. Sam and Lizzie are chased through the unforgiving terrain by Sergeant Fletcher (a menacing Bryan Brown) and his posse. As the film proceeds, the moral divide typical of Westerns begins to collapse; speaking at the British Film Institute, Mr Thornton said that he was keen to demonstrate that “no one is just bad and no one’s just good”. The plot was suggested to Mr Thornton by a friend, David Tranter, who grew up with him in Alice Springs, a desert-town in the dead centre of Australia. It is fleshed out with tales and lore from Mr Tranter’s grandfather, Philomac (played on screen with mischievous charm by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). 

It is a kind of historical prequel to “Samson and Delilah”, Mr Thornton’s debut, which won a Camera d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2009. In that modern-day love story, two indigenous teenagers leave their remote community for Alice Springs after Delilah is blamed for the death of her grandmother and cast out. Living conditions are harsh, housing is beyond dilapidated, addiction is rife, and when the pair seeks a new life they end up sleeping rough under a bridge. In showing that there is no promised land, “Samson and Delilah” laid bare the pervasive inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia—where almost half of indigenous men and over a third of women die before the age of 45.

“Sweet Country” is an origin story of sorts for the racial traumas that transcend generations, showing how English settlers in the 19th century treated indigenous people as serfs. “Australians like to talk about how the city was built on the back of sheep,” Mr Thornton said at the BFI. “That’s bullshit; it was built on the back of the black.” Yet this is not widely discussed because, as Mr Thornton pointed out, “if you colonise a place, you’re gonna write the history books that say you did it nicely.”

This imbalance has informed the film’s look as well as its feel. Mr Thornton, who was also the film’s cinematographer, spoke to Seventh Row of his decision to shoot characters from just below eye level so as to empower, rather than objectify, them. When the screen turns to the landscape, it is neither inert nor silent. Dried-out grass in the foreground sparkles as the wind blows by. The horizon seems to steam with rage thanks to the use of a Blackmagic camera reprogrammed to shoot in ultraviolet, and old anamorphic lenses from the 1960s that create a shimmering effect. There is no soundtrack to “Sweet Country” to complement the epic scenery, but this doesn’t register as an absence; the land provides an orchestra. Each heavy step on the red dust of the ground is heard. The unending white salt-pans make a sound like a scrape across glass; the whistle of the wind fills any voids of silence that might have jarred. 

In the closing scenes, after an act of brutal violence, Fred Smith (Sam Neill)—a kindly but weak preacher who fails to ever act on his belief that “we are all equal in the eyes of God”—cries out: “What chance have we got, what chance does this country have?” This exclamation hits a nerve, but there is cause for hope. In “Sweet Country”, Mr Thornton has made a searing and thoughtful film—one that may help to write a new historical narrative that speaks the full truth about the years of abuse wrought on the more than 500 indigenous nations across Australia. As the film closes, we see young Philomac toss a watch stolen from a white man into a dam. It’s strikingly uplifting, neatly symbolising that the time has come for more stories like Sam Kelly’s.