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Sibling rivalry and diseased sheep drive the sentimental Sam Neill drama Rams

Illustration for article titled Sibling rivalry and diseased sheep drive the sentimental Sam Neill drama Rams
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Faithfully remaking a movie can serve as a kind of controlled experiment, revealing what happens if one seemingly insignificant element gets replaced by another. In terms of narrative, there’s very little difference between the original version of Rams (a prizewinner at Cannes 2015) and its new, English-language variant from director Jeremy Sims. The latter follows the former beat by beat for the most part, even re-creating some of the same shots. Nonetheless, a quick glance is enough to determine which version you’re watching, because Iceland and Australia look nothing alike. Rams was initially conceived as taking place in a bleak, frigid environment, and that frostiness turns out to have been intrinsic to its flinty appeal. Transposed to Western Australia’s much warmer climes, the same story feels less elemental, and consequently a whole lot more sentimental.

Still, Grímur Hákonarson’s basic premise, adapted here by Jules Duncan, remains enticing. Despite living just yards away from each other, elderly brothers Colin (Sam Neill) and Les (Michael Caton) haven’t spoken in some 40 years, both men tenderly nursing resentment from some long-ago, never-specified rift. They jointly inherited a sheep farm, and regularly place first and second in their region’s prize ram competition, which only fuels their mutual hatred. Disaster strikes, however, when Colin discovers that one of his sheep has somehow contracted Ovine Johne’s disease (OJD), a fatal and extremely contagious infection of the small intestine. (Oddly, this has been modified from the original film’s diagnosis of scrapie, even as the characters repeatedly point out that OJD has never been seen in Australia.) To contain the outbreak, both men’s entire flocks of the same rare breed must be euthanized. Blaming Colin for having reported his case, Les is even more furious than usual—and that’s before he discovers that Colin, who couldn’t bear to let the family lineage perish, is hiding three ewes and a ram in his house.

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Even ignoring the change in climate, this version of Rams isn’t quite as dryly funny as its predecessor, mostly because Sims lacks Hákonarson’s formal exactitude. Toward the middle of both films, one of the brothers drinks himself into a near coma, forcing the other to seek medical care for him; the joke is that he’s transported to the hospital in a tractor’s shovel and unceremoniously dumped at the entrance. Hákonarson captures this marvelous gag from a poker-faced distance, in one unbroken shot, and carefully places two doctors or nurses in the background to watch what happens in disbelief and then rush to the drunken brother’s aid. Sims chooses a closer (and hence less detached) angle, cuts to another angle for unnecessary emphasis when Les rolls out of the shovel arm onto the ground, and has a nurse finally appear only after Colin drives away. Same fundamental idea, weaker execution.

Illustration for article titled Sibling rivalry and diseased sheep drive the sentimental Sam Neill drama Rams
Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

A few changes are welcome: Sims has dispensed with the original’s comic fixation on geriatric male nudity, which always felt too cute, and there’s a more significant female presence here in the form of Kat (Miranda Richardson), a vet with a crush on Colin (though this quasi-romantic subplot adds nearly half an hour to the 2015 film’s brisk 93 minutes). Mostly, though, it becomes increasingly clear that the brothers’ chilly, forbidding relationship requires gray skies and copious slush to match. Western Australia’s sunny, arid expanse makes Colin and Les’ endless, pointless rivalry seem small and petty, rather than deeply rooted in the landscape itself.

The sense of futility is lost, forcing Neill and Caton to compensate by pitching their performances at a broader level instead of letting sheer cragginess do the heavy lifting. What’s more, the first film’s superb, unexpectedly tender conclusion was predicated on the danger of freezing to death in a blizzard. Smoke inhalation from a wildfire—apparently the best substitution anyone came up with for a location where it virtually never snows—doesn’t achieve remotely the same effect. Those who haven’t seen Hákonarson’s Rams may not know what they’re missing. Those who have will be left cold.

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