Fans of BBC4’s Icelandic Nordic Noir drama, Trapped, will admire the fine acting, bone-dry humour, bleak landscapes, wild beards and knitwear on display in Rams. But those expecting madcap Shaun the Sheep antics will be disappointed: this is a dark, deadpan, glacial comedy about a disappearing way of life.
Set in a secluded Icelandic valley, Rams tells the story of sheep-farmer brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), next-door neighbours who haven’t spoken to one another for 40 years. When one of their sheep is infected with the incurable disease scrapie, their livelihood is under threat, along with their beloved animals. The stubborn brothers, who communicate by sheepdog (rolled up letters) or the occasional shotgun blast, are finally forced to co-operate.
The film opens with a ‘best ram’ competition, narrowly won by Kiddi’s Sproti – by the thickness of his back muscles – from his brother in 2nd place. The contest is part of the village summer festival, which includes music and poetry reading, with an ode proclaiming that ‘sheep are woven into our farmers’ work and being’. They are ‘resistant and tough’, just like the two old curmudgeons locking horns in Rams.
To the farmers, the impending sheep cull is a disaster on a par with losing one’s family: their ‘girls’ are all they have to live for. With his shaggy grey beard, Gummi resembles one of his sheep, whereas snowy-bearded Kiddi looks like Bill Oddie as a grumpy Santa. It seems that Kiddi is the ‘black sheep’ of the family, prone to drunken rages and scaring off housekeepers, but the brothers’ fall-out is never explained. Kiddi predicts ‘this is going to be one hell of a winter. No sheep. Just us two’.
The valley’s landscape shifts to match the mood. The unaccustomed sight of green Icelandic hillsides, echoing to the calls of curlews and oystercatchers, gradually gives way to a brooding black backdrop, whistling wind over dry-stone walls, then the more familiar whiteout of an Arctic winter. Atli Orvarsson’s spare score acts as the perfect accompaniment – concertina dirge, bagpipe drone and bleak piano plinking.
Writer-director Grimur Hakonarson’s background is in documentaries and the drama in Rams mostly accumulates by detail rather than grand gesture: a jigsaw puzzle and glass of milk are silent Gummi’s idea of a party; spangled green wallpaper and a 1978 calendar speak of time standing still. He puts on his best Wallace & Gromit brown tanktop for a lonely Christmas meal, but does not encourage guests.
As a result, when something more dramatic takes place, the scenes are memorable. When Gummi finds his brother passed out in the snow in a drunken stupor, he fetches the tractor, scoops him up, drives to the nearest hospital, plonks him down in the disabled parking bay at A&E, then drives home. Ram’s climax, which takes place in a terrifying Highland blizzard, suggested the hellish planet in Alien, and the film’s final image is not easily forgotten.