Movie Review: Sam Neill has sheep and sibling trouble in the Aussie dramedy “Rams”

Breeding and bloodlines are sources of whimsy and trauma in “Rams,” a winning dramedy set in Australian sheep country.

Sam Neill and Michael Caton play loners — feuding brothers Colin and Les — stuck on adjacent ranches, never speaking, bitter rivals whenever there’s a Merino sheep judging contest at a local fair. They’ve split the land handed down to them, each raising the family bloodline of sheep in their own way, and even compete for the love of one shared sheep dog — “Kip” to Colin, “Floss” to the other.

Older brother Les is a slob and sloppy farmer, fond of spiced rum and Humble Pie t-shirts and vintage R & B. But he always raises the prize-winners, always lords it over his “weak” sibling and indulges in the occasional drunken flip-out — with firearms — at his bullied younger brother.

Colin is more conventional and conscientious. And still he loses, and cowers when Les goes on a tirade.

This remake of an Icelandic dramedy of the same title and tone from a few years back fills the background with neighboring colorful cusses of the “If you’re gonna farm sheep, farm REAL sheep (“not” Merinos) variety, grown men not shy about measuring a ram’s competitive value by reaching under his hindquarters and weighing his testicles.

The new pink-haired vet (Miranda Richardson) is a “pommy,” a Brit who’s just settling in. She’s about to be tested, and not by the judging she pitches in to do at the fair.

Colin spots it first, the symptoms of the deadly and contagious “OJD,” Ovine Johne’s Disease. What had been “cute” with an edgey subtext now turns serious as government-mandated testing and “destroying the flocks” sets in.

Add to that the fact that this being Australia, it wouldn’t be Christmas (arriving in Australia’s summer) without brushfires.

Neill, a formidable actor and these days, gentleman farmer/vintner in his native New Zealand, is perfectly cast as Colin. He lends a little sparkle to the feud moments, and is terrific getting across Colin’s panic at seeing OJD symptoms and the awful trauma of a losing animals he coddles and compliments every morning.

“You’re beautiful. And YOU’RE beautiful…”

Veteran Aussie character actor Caton makes Les easy to hate, easier to pity.

And Richardson makes the most of a character of a certain age who is somehow drawn to Colin, even if we can’t quite see why that would be.

That’s a shortcoming of Jeremy Sims’ take on this material. It’s a bit all over the place, introducing characters and possible story threads that it abandons, which accounts for what feels like a somewhat bloated running time for a dramedy that’s essentially a three-hander, and that wants to be — despite dramatic moments — a comedy.

But the leads and the lovely scenery make up for some of that, and the quietly compelling “brother’s keeper” storyline — with lots of detailed farmwork and local color, make “Rams” well worth your time.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for language

Cast: Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Michael Caton

Credits: Directed by Jeremy Sims, script by Jules Duncan, based on the Icelandic film, “Rams.” A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:55

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