Director: Jeremy Sims
Starring: Sam Neill, Michael Caton, Miranda Richardson, Asher Keddie, Wayne Blair, Leon Ford
Who would have thought that a remake of a quirky Icelandic film about shepherds could end up being the film to best encapsulate the experience of 2020 in Australia? With Rams, a remake of Grimur Hakonarson’s 2015 film Hrútar (which is Icelandic for ‘Rams’), screenwriter Jules Duncan and director Jeremy Sims have managed to not only make the story feel organically of this place, but also very much of this time.
The Grimuson brothers, Colin (Sam Neill) and Les (Michael Caton), are sheep farmers from Mount Barker in Western Australia. The region is famous for a particular breed of sheep, Calvin Horns, which are not found anywhere else in the world, and the Grimuson’s Calvin Horns are the best. Despite living in adjoining properties and sharing a dog, Colin and Les haven’t spoken to each other for forty years. When Les’s prize-winning ram is diagnosed with Ovine Johne’s Disease, Infectious Disease Control determines that all of the sheep in the valley must be destroyed to contain the spread. Colin, unable to stomach the idea that this breed that has been such an important part of his family for generations might be rendered extinct, decides to hide a ram and three ewes in his house for the duration of the two year quarantine. A secret he must keep not only from the government, but from his brother and the other farmers.
While the marketing materials seem determined to pitch this film as a knockabout comedy about a sibling rivalry between Aussie larrikins, there is much more going on here. Particularly when viewed in 2020 context, Rams is more drama than comedy. This is the story of a community faced with combatting an infectious disease while still coming to terms with devastating loses incurred in a recent bushfire (Steve Arnold’s cinematography does a fantastic job of capturing how this landscape shifts from lush and fertile to harsh and menacing with the seasons). All adequately insured, it is not concern for their livelihoods that is the source of tension and drama. Rather, it is the impact the containment measures have on their sense of identity as both individuals and a community that become the focus. If they are not Calvin Horn farmers, what are they? We see characters wrestling with the pull to leave the town or to diversify into farming alpacas or, God forbid, Marino sheep. We see them struggle with knowing when to stick together and stay loyal and when to throw in the towel. While the real impacts of the disease are devastating, and we see some heartbreaking moments, the existential threat to the community is just as serious.
Alongside this, Rams also offers an exploration of isolated, rural masculinity. Both Colin and Les are loners. While the abrasive and alcoholic Les is more blatant in the way he pushes people away, Colin is only marginally more integrated into the community. Seemingly more comfortable conversing and expressing his affection for his sheep than he is with another human, his need to keep his secret only pushes him further into solitude. The relationship that emerges between Colin and the English vet, Kat (Miranda Richardson), is not so much about providing the film with a romantic subplot as it is for highlighting the self-inflicted nature of Colin’s isolation.
But just as Rams is not the light entertainment that the trailer might have you believe, nor is it all doom and gloom. Sims does a impressive job of balancing the drama with the comedy, avoiding jarring tonal swings and ensuring that neither undermines the other. This is helped by a strong cast. Neill is as affable as ever, while Caton manages to retain some sense of humanity in a character that is otherwise abrasive, bitter and resentful. Miranda Richardson’s status as the British icon in an otherwise Australian cast adds to the sense of being an outsider herself, while the supporting cast, including Asher Keddie and Wayne Blair, effectively create the sense of a decent, salt-of-the-earth community which gives stakes to the drama.
Films, like all art, do not exist in a vacuum. They are experienced in context. Watching Rams in 2020 naturally highlights certain aspects of its narrative to an extent that the filmmakers could not have anticipated when they embarked on the project. It is very much a film of the moment. But that moment will change, and as the film is divorced from its historical context it will be interesting to see how the viewer’s experience of the film changes. It is a very good film now. In ten years time, it may still be very good, but it will likely feel quite different.
Review by Duncan McLean
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