Rams

A different take on the eccentric Icelandic drama that makes more of community, the challenging environment and laconic Aussie humour

PG, 119 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Before the camera even begins to roll, feuding sheep farmers as woolly and muddle-headed as their flocks is funny in itself. The original version of this film is about a pair of curmudgeonly brothers who continue to behave like a pair of twits who haven’t spoken for 40 years, until events conspire to bring them together.

That was in 2015. Rams, written and directed by Grimur Hakonarson, benefitted greatly from a crush that audiences have been having with things Nordic, and Iceland’s reputation as a land of fire and ice, the home of Bjork and Sigur Ros, an exotic subarctic outpost of distinct Nordic culture.

This is the English-language version, directed by Jeremy Sims, whose last film was Last Cab to Darwin. It was a frequent runner up to the original Icelandic version of Rams when they were competing on the international film awards circuit together.

a different take is the only decent excuse for a remake of a movie that was pretty good in the first place

Hakonarson’s Rams made off with Un Certain Regard, the award at the Cannes festival that prizes innovative and daring, unusual styles and non-traditional storytelling. It did well at the box office too.

Sims was offered the option of the English-language remake. Working with the screenplay by Jules Duncan, he has taken the story and turned it into an Australian bush saga. A different take is the only decent excuse for a remake of a movie that was pretty good in the first place. It is self-described as ‘based’ on the Hakonarson original.

The Aussie screenwriter, Duncan, has followed a similar trajectory to Hakonarson’s work but has taken events in a significantly different direction and changed the grim ending. There is a much lighter tone, a gentler humour and a narrative that includes wider community.

And there are several significant women, including Asher Keddie as a local woman widowed in a recent bushfire.

The role of the vet is given a boost. Kat, a newly arrival from Dorset, England, is played here by a feisty Miranda Richardson in a plum red bob.

This introduces a love interest. Kat has a thing for the less unreasonable brother, Colin Grimurson, played by Sam Neill. Though it’s too bad for her that he is totally focussed on his small flock. An exotic heritage breed. No garden variety merinos here and no time for girls. Farming is a full-time job.

Brother Les, played by Michael Caton, is the hopeless alcoholic, a miserable bastard if ever there was one. But he does have some luck with his prize rams, pipping his brother at the post in the local show when a ‘hindquarter muscle’ the deciding factor between two magnificent specimens.

As brothers on the land, Neill and Caton, look remarkably similar types to the characters played by Sigurour Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson, who are both well-known Icelandic actors. A cleanly shaven Sigurjonsson, was the lead in another recent Icelandic film, A White, White Day.

Neill and Caton each bring with them similar reserves of goodwill from decades on screen in popular film and television. Caton, of course, had a key role in one of the most popular Australian comedies ever, The Castle of 1997. He is great at both the killer glare, and at being delivered legless to the hospital in a tractor scoop.

After a slow, sometimes uneven first half, the film sets up a strong and engaging, sometimes moving, second.

it should go down well in the bush, and urban types may just have to live with their characterisations

As things get going, the film makes a very positive virtue of community and the laconic local humour, but Australians everywhere will relate to the existential challenges that the environment presents. The cycle of extremes has a very active role here. Bushfires, dangerous levels of smoke, devastating drought and communicable disease that have to be brought under control.

It all seems so much more relevant than when production wrapped late in 2018.

The city-bush divide is played for all its worth with some heavy-handed pub humour and a fair bit of bureaucracy and ‘useless bloody Pommie’ bashing. The Fed professionals are exemplified by Leon Ford in a thankless role as an insensitive bureaucrat who has to have things done by-the-book. Departments of agriculture may never look the same.

Rams should go down very well in the bush. Urban types may just have to live with their characterisations but all local audiences will warm to this timeless story of two brothers at loggerheads.

First published in the Canberra Times on 31 October 2020