Rams: Great performances by Sam Neill – and the sheep

Film review: Casting couldn’t be better in this remake of an Icelandic comedy

Rams: Sam Neill (as Colin), Michael Caton (as Les). Photograph: David Dare Parker

Film Title: Rams

Director: Jeremy Sims

Starring: Sam Neill, Michael Caton, Miranda Richardson, Asher Keddie, Wayne Blair

Genre: Comedy

Running Time: 115 min

Thu, Feb 4, 2021, 07:53

   

When news emerged that Sam Neill was to star in the remake of Rams, fans of Grímur Hákonarson’s excellent Icelandic comedy — winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2015 — could be forgiven for anticipating a plausible translation to the star’s native New Zealand. The pastures of South Island in winter would stand in well for the original setting. Or Sam, born in Omagh, could, perhaps, take the project to less-than-balmy Co Tyrone.

As it happens, the new Rams has ended up in sun-blasted Western Australia. The journey across hemispheres has altered the tone of the piece. It’s a lighter, less oppressive film that structures fewer of its gags around existential gloom. That’s not a bad thing.

No sensitive viewer could deny the spirit of the original remains, but Jeremy Sims’s charming cover version reverberates with unmistakably Australian harmonies. A long central sequence takes place in a baking Christmas. The blizzards of the original have become hazardous bush fires. This is the right way to drag these things into the Anglophone world.

As before, the story concerns two grumpy brothers, both sheep farmers, who, though they live within shearing distance, have not talked for years. Neill plays the marginally more amiable, borderline civilised Colin. The reliably charismatic Michael Caton is the drunk, profane near-psychopathic Les (what else would such an Australian be called?).

The casting could hardly be bettered. Among the warmest actors of his generation, Neill could inject humanity into the most ruthless of monsters. Colin is not that, but we, perhaps, need a few of Sam’s furrowed twinkles to reassure us he is not so sombre as he initially seems. Caton is something of an Australian national treasure — you may not recognise the name, but you know him from The Sullivans, The Castle and a dozen other productions — and, allowing pathos into his lonely outsider, he again confirms why he is character actor for the ages.

The brothers’ angry stalemate gets shaken when one of Les’s rams is found to have Ovine Johne’s disease, a severe intestinal complaint. Local English vet Kat (Miranda Richardson, unchanged by the decades) is supportive, but the men from the ministry must be summoned.

Here the film does slip into cliche. You hardly need to be told that the officials are young, suited jerks who spend their time complaining about poor phone reception. Someone needs to make a comedy standing up for the hard-working officials who have to order the slaughter of infected livestock.

Anyway, Rams then takes a turn towards the nutty as Colin resists in his own eccentric manner. Kat is suspicious, but veterinarian and farmer still manage to skirt the foothills of a possible romance. As a “pom” (their word, not mine), she loves the remote landscape with a romantic rush that neither brother can manage.

Though the story makes few significant alterations to the original, the final crisis feels a little more conventional. The softening of the characters allows in a little more sentimentality. Nobody will move away from the screen muttering “what the heck was that?” But this remains a delightfully eccentric comedy that makes good use of its primates and even better use of its ruminants.

The sheep has been an underappreciated animal in world cinema. The good people at Aardman made a hero of Shaun. The excellent 2006 film Black Sheep — from New Zealand, of course — has a deserved cult following. But the characterful, resilient animals in both the Icelandic and Australian Rams set the standard for ungulate charm. They bustle in the undergrowth. They bellow at the least threat.

Best performance by a flock since the wallpaper in Abigail’s Party.

On digital platforms from February 5th