Sweet Country dominates AACTA Awards, with a surprise best actor win

Its director left school at 14. Its star had barely acted before. And it came from an idea suggested by a sound recordist based on an incident in his great-grandfather's life.

Warwick Thornton's brutal and stunningly beautiful western Sweet Country has dominated the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in Sydney, winning best film, best direction and, in a major surprise, best actor for little-known Hamilton Morris.

Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber and Sam Neill in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country.Credit:Transmission Films

While he missed out with best film, directing and adapted screenplay nominations, Simon Baker won best supporting actor for playing a grizzled surfer in Breath.

Fellow actor-turned-director Joel Edgerton won best adapted screenplay for Boy Erased, saying he wished the movie did not need to exist. "One of the big things we hope is that we can end conversion therapy," he said.

At an awards ceremony that showed the continued strength of Indigenous film and television, the outback crime drama Mystery Road won three awards – best drama series, best guest or supporting actor for Wayne Blair, and best guest or supporting actress for Deborah Mailman – on top of the two it won at the earlier Industry Luncheon.

While Ladies in Black led the nominations with 11, Sweet Country kept up a winning streak that started with prizes at both the prestigious Venice and Toronto film festivals last year.

It took six awards, including – just like Thornton's only other feature film, 2009's Samson & Delilah – the top two.

Set in the Northern Territory's MacDonnell Ranges, it centres on an Aboriginal station hand who goes on the run with his wife after killing a white settler in self-defence in the 1920s. While the cast includes Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, its acting nominees were Aboriginal newcomers Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber.

Morris, who has previously acted in the television series 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, won best actor from a field that included Hollywood star Lucas Hedges for Boy Erased.

The idea for the film came from sound recordist David Tranter, a friend of Thornton's since they both grew up on "a mongrel of a street" in Alice Springs, based on a story from his family's history.

While it is set in 1929, Thornton has said it is just as much about the "complete and blatant racism" he experienced growing up in the outback town.

Tranter shared both best film and best original screenplay, which has to be unique for a sound recordist.

After producer David Jowsey called it "a story about our history, a story about the birth of our nation and … our identity" as he accepted best film, Thornton added a political note when he declared "justice isn't served until we grow up as a country".

Only just out of high school, Rice's win continues a rise in Hollywood that already includes 10 films headed by The Nice Guys, two Spider-Man instalments and The Beguiled.

She beat two big names internationally: Rooney Mara (Mary Magdalene) and Julia Ormond (Ladies in Black).

Best actress winner Angourie Rice (centre) with Alison McGirr and Rachael Taylor in Ladies in Black. Credit:Anna Steel

At an awards show with a political edge, with actors and filmmakers wearing blue ribbons to support a campaign for an end to indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru, Paul Damien Williams' Gurrumul, on the late, great Indigenous musician, won best feature documentary.

The ABC's gay rights drama Riot won best telefeature or mini-series as well as best lead actress in a television drama for Kate Box and best lead actor for Damon Herriman.

While surprisingly beaten for best comedy program by the ABC's The Letdown at the Industry Luncheon, Hannah Gadsby won best performance in a television comedy for the acclaimed Netflix special Nanette.

Best reality series went to Australian Survivor: Champions vs Contenders with The Weekly with Charlie Pickering winning best entertainment program and Selling Houses Australia claiming best lifestyle program.

Veteran actor Bryan Brown won the Longford Lyell Award for his lifetime's work, with filmmaker, photographer and philanthropist Ian Darling receiving the Byron Kennedy Award for outstanding creative enterprise.

After tributes from Sam Neill, Simon Baker, Tom Cruise, Sigourney Weaver and other stars, Brown said" “I love making Australian movies and I love playing Australian blokes."

Best Asian film went to Muye Wen's Dying to Survive,  a hit Chinese drama about a shady health supplements supplier who smuggles generic drugs to help leukemia patients.

"Although thousands of films are produced worldwide each year, only a small group manage to spark political debate, receive critical acclaim and become a commercial success," jury president Russell Crowe said. "Dying to Survive is one of these rare films."

2018 AACTA Award Winners

Best film
Sweet Country

Best direction
Warwick Thornton, Sweet Country

Best lead actor
Hamilton Morris, Sweet Country

Best lead actress
Angourie Rice, Ladies in Black

Best supporting actor
Simon Baker, Breath

Best supporting actress
Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased

Best adapted screenplay
Boy Erased

Best Asian film
Dying to Survive

Best feature documentary
Gurrumul

Best drama series
Mystery Road (ABC/Bunya Productions)

Best telefeature or miniseries
Riot (ABC/Werner Film Productions)

Best entertainment program
The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (ABC/Thinkative TV)

Best lifestyle program
Selling Houses Australia (Foxtel/Lifestyle/Beyond Productions)

Best reality series
Australian Survivor: Champions vs Contenders (Network 10/Endemol Shine Australia)

Best lead actor in a television drama
Damon Herriman, Riot

Best lead actress in a television drama
Kate Box, Riot

Best performance in a television comedy
Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Best guest or supporting actor in a television drama
Wayne Blair, Mystery Road

Best guest or supporting actress in a television drama
Deborah Mailman, Mystery Road

    Longford Lyell Award
    Bryan Brown

    Byron Kennedy Award
    Ian Darling AO

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