Sunday 29 July 2018

From the archive: "Rams"

Perhaps it's the relative sparseness of the human population, but our Icelandic cousins have an unusually intense relationship with their animals, if the movies are anything to go by. A few years back, this bond resulted in Of Horses and Men, Benedikt Erlingsson's singular comedy on the subject of equine breeding. There now follows Grímur Hákonarson's equally idiosyncratic Rams, centred as it is on two warring brothers and the woolly ovines they have in some ways come to resemble. Beardy Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), the jollier of the two, and the balding, bibulous Kiddi (Theódór Júlíusson) have been engaged in their own interpersonal cold war for decades, their rivalry heightened by fluctuating fortunes in their remote village's annual prize ram contest. Though a barbed wire fence separates the siblings' adjacent properties, they continue to scowl and spit at one another during their fleeting, wordless encounters; we glean that these shaggy, solitary creatures, clad in near-identical jumpers, aren't far from locking antlers themselves. Tension escalates after one detects a hint of scrapie - 2016's unlikeliest plot device - in the other's livestock, a situation that leaves the pair of them facing a quandary: whether or not to follow the vet's advice and eliminate the one thing beyond a name the pair have left in common.

It's around this point that the sincerity in Hákonarson's storytelling begins to shine through. It wouldn't be too hard to imagine a humdrum Britcom about rival farmers that played this agricultural one-upmanship for insistently mild jollity, but Rams digs deeper, folding in the horror and devastation that follows from having to enter a barn and do away with the adorable creatures that have filled up your long and lonely hours. The landscape preserved by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's properly widescreen lensing - still serene, spacious bordering on empty - consequently becomes more wintry and desolate yet, as though the brothers' hearts had been turned inside out and presented to the world. Yet this sudden silencing of the lambs serves to clear some measure of space in the two men's lives; it puts them both on a level playing field. We're spared the hellish imagery that the UK's own foot-and-mouth crisis generated, but the disposal of the dead sheep demands a bonfire of the vanities - and a return to first principles - which can only be healthy for the film's antagonists.

The literal and figurative thaw that follows plays out in that droll, gnomic tone that has sustained Icelandic cinema from 1995's Cold Fever through to the Erlingsson film. It will entail one brother marching naked into the other's Christmas dinner, the emergence of long-buried secrets from the snow, and one imaginative - if brusque - deployment of a haybale picker. What's more striking is how Hákonarson gets his characters moving again (and how he moves us), everything heading towards a resonant final image with tremendous assurance, yet with neither contrivance nor overstating the implicit message of forgiveness. Instead, Hákonarson grounds each development in the leads' subtle playing - and both Sigurjónsson and Júlíusson convince entirely both as individuals who look as though they might know how to operate a tractor, and men who might be stubborn and prideful enough to hold onto a grudge for years or decades. In the midst of awards-season trumpeting, it's a delight to encounter a film that quietly, gradually creeps up on you, and which - without ever seeming to expend much effort in doing so - puts a smile on your face, warming enough to get you through the next extreme cold snap. I'm tempted to say flock to it.

(MovieMail, February 2016)

Rams screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.05am.

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