Iceland is a deep well for art. Music and cinema has enjoyed growing naturally there, happily removed from (most) of the pulls of regular Western sensibilities, a country whose expansive national imagination comes from an open heart and a sturdy soul. Rams, a new film from Grímur Hákonarson, epitomises those wonderful native traits in an idiosyncratic, reliably oddball, and emotionally writhe little picture – but to what extent?
In a remote valley in remotest Iceland, a small community prides itself on its sheep, a fluffy white river filling their idyllic valley with purpose. But when Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) feels cheated when he loses a ram-breeding contest to his brother, Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) – who he hasn’t spoken to in 40 years – he goes over the edge: pride gets the best of him, and he purports to have found a contagious disease on Kiddi’s prize-winning animal. What he didn’t foresee, however, is that in his petty attempt at stealing his brother’s trophy, he’s brought the village to its knees; the authorities get involved,and the widespread rumour of the disease forces a horrific question over the valley’s head. Do they slaughter their own sheep for the greater good?
Hákonarson does well to raise these stakes in a suitably profound, yet entirely realistic manner; the valley, while open and connected to a wider world (the visits of a stern government-ran environmental agency aren’t stereotypically otherwordly, or alien, or even that harsh), functions as its own teeny universe. Life and death and everything between is governed by the wellbeing of their flock, something that is painfully visible on these characters’ faces; losing the initial ram-rearing contest, Gummi looks like he’s just been shot through the chest. To note, too, is the wonderful central performance from Sigurjónsson that brings Gummi to life: a bush-bearded paranoiac who thrives on jealousy, who although grapples with doing the right thing, usually goes ahead with it in his own off-kilter way. One instance is the hilarious shot in which he dumps his brother outside A&E using his digger, before driving off nonchalantly. It’s an ingenious moment in which a great laugh is drawn from an act of pure character, where Gummi keeps as far away as possible from actually touching his brother, but still caring for him.
Thanks to a continuous string of wonderful character moments, Rams bounces along effortlessly enough; but when it comes to the film surrounding that otherwise sturdy core, it holds up a little less well. While Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography captures Iceland in its bleak glory, there’s little to tie the sweeping landscapes and bitter cold to the smouldering drama unfolding; for want of a better term, there’s a nagging lack of vision in Rams – the kind where the director has thematically linked everything visible on-screen into a unifying whole.
So while the movie doesn’t quite have that overlying magical element that transcends it to pure cinema, it does boast a touching story that’s well-spun, original, and frequently funny to boot, and it does all these things extremely well – including toeing the line between black comedy and near-tragic drama near-perfectly. Rams could only ever have come out of Iceland, and that is most certainly a compliment.
Rams is released February 5 in the UK.