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Sheep pull the wool over Neill

by Lydia Burgham, NZ Herald

It’s hard to imagine two more perfect actors to play feuding brothers in rural Australia than Sam Neill and Michael Caton.

The legendary actors play brothers Colin and Les, at odds with each other but united over their love for their prized sheep in remote Western Australia. It’s a tale of loyalty, love for animals, and forgiveness.

The film is adapted from an Icelandic movie released in 2015. The 2020 Aussie version is directed by Jeremy Sims and written by Jules Duncan.

Both actors have carved out decades-long acting careers. Rams draws on their talents.

Talking to them both over the phone, their natural banter makes it easy to see why their on-screen sibling relationship works so well. Neill says he’s held Caton in high regard for four decades and tells The New Zealand Herald he jumped at the chance to work with him.

“One of the first jobs when I left New Zealand and went to Australia was on a much-loved series called The Sullivans, and this bloke Caton took me under his wing. Caton befriended me and was very kind. I’ve always liked him as an actor. But don’t tell him that.” laughs 73-year-old Neill.

The stakes are high in Rams. When an infectious disease forces a mandatory culling of the sheep, it puts a strain on the entire community. Initially, it seems to all but deepen the estrangement between the brothers. Many New Zealanders in rural communities will identify with the no-nonsense attitudes of the characters and the fierce loyalty towards their stock.

And for Caton, 77, it was the chance to play a different kind of character from the roles he is famous for.

“It was a lovely break actually,” Caton says. “I’ve always been the character you want to like.” His character Les is in an emotionally tough spot, bitter and suffering from an alcohol addiction. Colin is a bit more level-headed, but makes his own rash decision to save a few sheep from being culled when he can’t bear to part with them.

“I was pretty scared about all the drunk acting, and I would practise my drunken walk at home,” Caton says. In the movie, there are several tough scenes showing the extent of his alcohol addiction and trauma. It’s rarely the butt of the joke in the film, but they do manage to sneak in one hilarious scene where Colin scoops up a comatose Les with a tractor.

“It breaks Les’ heart to lose his animals, it’s all he really cares about.”

The sheep also steal the show, and made for a fun filming experience. “Whatever they say about Australian and New Zealand sheep, Australian sheep panic just as easily as New Zealand sheep,” Neill says. “They were well behaved and one or two of them had actually been trained to act.”

Ultimately, the movie rams home the power of animals. Both actors agree there’s something special about forming a bond with animals. Neill keeps a great number on his farm in Central Otago, and often posts about them on his social media account.

“What’s delightful about, say, taking a dog for a walk, is that every moment is right now, and you’re not worried about tomorrow or yesterday.”

What the movie shows, Neill says, is that it’s never too late to forgive, even if it is the hardest thing of all.

THE POWER OF ANIMALS: Raising separate flocks of sheep descended from their family’s prized bloodline, brothers Les (Michael Caton) and Colin (Sam Neill) work side by side yet are worlds apart.Picture supplied by Roadshow Films