Nearly six years ago, “Rams,” a touching humanist drama from Iceland directed and written by Grímur Hákonarson, won hearts — and prizes — at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, in trots “Rams,” an Australian remake, directed by Jeremy Sims (“Last Cab to Darwin”). Adapted with winning cultural specificity by former newsman Jules Duncan, it’s longer and more broadly comic than the Icelandic version and boasts a tacked on, feel-good ending. Beloved Antipodean stars Sam Neill and Michael Caton play the two estranged brothers who must pull together to save what is dearest to them: their sheep.
Although they have not spoken to one another for 40 years, Colin (Neill) and older brother Les (Caton) Grimurson (a nod to the first name of director Hákonarson, as are the Icelandic sweaters the pair are first seen wearing) live on neighboring stud farms in a valley near Mount Barker, Western Australia. The spectacularly scenic landscape with its nearby mountains and beaches as well as baking hot summers and bush fires becomes a fateful character in the action.
Both brothers raise a breed of special heirloom sheep and are rivals in an annual competition for best ram. When Les’ flock shows signs of Ovine Johne’s disease (OJD), an incurable and highly contagious bacterial illness, the veterinary authorities decree that all the sheep in the valley must be destroyed. It’s a devastating blow for the local farmers, but the order hits hard-drinking, unruly Les and quiet, thoughtful Colin particularly hard, and they rebel against the rules in their own distinct ways.
While this setup follows that of the Icelandic version down to the terse notes that Colin sends to his brother via his clever sheep dog, it also expands the roles of some of the supporting players, including a widow (Asher Keddie) who lost her husband in a brush fire, her handsome, 20-something son Jackson (Will McNeill) and Jackson’s crush, Sally (Asher Yasbincek), the assistant to Cat (Miranda Richardson) the attractive local vet. Cat, an English expat, develops romantic feelings for Colin, but given his unwillingness to let anyone inside his ramshackle house where he has hidden a ram and three ewes, their relationship is mostly played for laughs.
Like helmer Hákonarson before him, director Sims presents the rigors of farm work, the plainness of his solitary protagonists’ lives and their deep affection for their sheep, but gives them a more comic tone. Also playing to the cruder humor of the Aussie context, there’s a running verbal and visual joke about the potency of the brothers’ well-endowed rams, and the buffoonish characterization of the representative of the Agricultural Department (Leon Ford) invites jocular scorn.
While the rampaging force of nature in the Icelandic “Rams” was a blizzard, here it is an out-of-control bush fire fought by volunteers throughout the valley, including Colin and Les. Along with the film’s humor, this element surely struck a chord with domestic audiences, making it one of the Oz box office hits of 2020.
Of course, the film’s main selling point is the particular chemistry of its two leads. It’s a delight to see the usually dapper Neill convince as a disheveled farmer, with his unshaven face, wild hair and utilitarian clothing. Meanwhile, Caton, with his baleful glare and drunken muttering, is utterly believable as the older, angrier brother.
On the tech side, the cinematography by Steven Arnold is attuned to both the beauty and danger of what nature brings, while the clever production design by Clayton Jauncey makes Colin’s bathroom the locus for multiple pivotal plot points. Despite some tragic events, the jaunty score by Antony Partos reassures that this iteration of “Rams” remains a comedy.
For the record, yet another remake is under way with the South Korean company Yong Film.