Saturday, 7 November 2020

Rams (2020) - Movie Review

Why do films need to be remade? Well, for the most part, they don’t. It’s largely done either to cash-in on the memorability of the original, or to further the idea that watching foreign films with subtitles is too much to ask of an average filmgoer (because nothing says ‘we respect our audience’ more than assuming they don’t know how to read), and even before they became so ridiculously ubiquitous in the modern era, this is a framework that has been around in the mainstream for decades. But then there are the rare examples of films with a purpose in reviving an older production, one that might highlight the poignancy of the original still ringing true in a different time, a different culture, a different context. And in the case of this recent Aussie effort, it might be one of the most necessary in our history.

As a remake, the plot points and progression are basically the same as the 2015 Icelandic original: Two farming brothers, who haven’t spoken much to each other in the previous four decades, reconcile over a series of disastrous events to do with diseased sheep and natural disasters. But while the narrative seems rather straight-forward as a translation, the way that the plot specifics have altered turn this into something rather special and, I’m going to reiterate this, necessary.

The Icelandic landscape has been replaced by the dusty outback of rural Australiana, same with the actors (Miranda Richardson’s appearance as a vet notwithstanding). The disease has been changed from scrapie, a degenerative disorder that affects the nervous system, to Ovine Johne’s Disease, a bacterial infection that we've had control plans in place for in this country since 1998. And the blizzard that formed a crucial part of the original’s narrative has been replaced with the landscape-razing force of a bushfire. In the process of translating a European production from a few years back, director Jeremy Sims and writer Jules Duncan have managed to create a film that… is basically 2020 wrapped up into a single two-hour stretch.

For all the giggles about checking the size of a ram’s bollocks, and the copious air freshener needed to cover up their scent once quarantine kicks in, I felt a recurrent feeling of gut-punch at watching this story play out. Knowing how bushfires dominated our land early in the year (and to a degree still are, which has fallen out of the national spotlight in light of COVID), how quarantine has affected both urban and rural communities, and how the friction between persons feels heightened in light of those two factors, watching Michael Caton’s Les and his lingering grudge with Sam Neill’s Colin hit really close to home.

It also helps that the main plot point, that being how Colin has kept a ram and three sheep after the rest of the flock had to be put down due to OJD, narrowly avoids emboldening unhealthy attitudes in regards to… other forms of quarantine. With how Leon Ford’s De Vries, a bureaucrat from the Department of Agriculture, can come across at times like a strawman for Big Government infringing on the people’s rights to risk illness for the sake of muh freedums, I was honestly a bit worried from the trailer footage that this was going to be fuel for a entirely different kind of fire.

But again, that’s not what we get. Through some excellent visual storytelling (and some of Neill and Caton’s best work in years), the way it depicts their respective attachments to their flocks, the heartache at what they have to do in light of the quarantine, the decades-long friction between them and how their work ultimately helps bring them back together, is incredibly affecting. It serves as an example of how the distinction between what we know must be done and what we feel must be done can make ‘obvious’ choices from the outside that much harder to swallow. Seeing someone wrestle with the choice of either letting his livelihood die from illness, or mercy killing that same livelihood with a bolt gun, is one of those “No one should have to make this choice!” moments, one made even sadder knowing that, with everything that’s happened in the last 12 months… chances are many have had to make that choice recently.

I honestly don’t know which part of this whole thing impresses me more: The achingly emotional approach to the story that operates as a struggle between urban glibness vs. rural earnestness (a fitting juxtaposition, given how rural communities are still being hit hard by bushfires as well as the lockdown), or that it might be one of the single best translator-remakes of the last several years through its smoothness and sheer urgency. Its cultural specificity could serve as a barrier to entry for overseas viewers, as I’m sure this will hit harder for Aussies than most others… but by that same token, as a cinematic artefact of this point in our nation’s history, echoing events that made Australia part of the international conversation for reasons beyond Paul Hogan, this is both engrossing and nigh-on invaluable.

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