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Reviews

Movie reviews: Icelandic drama about sheep farmers a masterclass in minimalist film-making

Rams features two feuding brothers while Churchill looks at the vulnerable side of the former British Prime Minister

"Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance" goes the quote from playwright David Mamet. This week's crop of films tests the rightness of his observation.

Of the two, the superior one is a tragicomic tale of a grudge left to fester too long, while the other is a political biopic that sees British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill fighting his generals with the same ferocity he reserved for Hitler.

Rams (M18, 93 minutes, now showing at The Projector, 4/5 stars) offers a masterclass in minimalist film-making that lacks for nothing in colour and character.

Like the creatures of the title, brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) are two Icelandic sheep farmers with their horns locked in combat, the result of a decades-old feud whose origins are never fully explained.

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When disaster strikes their valley, the last few strands of the fraternal bond are in danger of snapping entirely and forever.

Writer-director Grimur Hakonarson, who picked up the Un Certain Regard prize in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for this film, captures the hard, icy landscapes and the equally flinty personalities of the brothers with affection - there is as much beauty as there is harshness.

Sigurdur Sigurjonsson as sheep farmer Gummi (above) in Rams; and Brian Cox as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Churchill.
Sigurdur Sigurjonsson as sheep farmer Gummi (above) in Rams; and Brian Cox as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Churchill. PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

In long stretches, empty of dialogue, Gummi goes about his farm work; he loves his animals. Occasionally, someone from town will drop by for a chat. For Icelandic farmers, a dozen words qualifies as a good, long conversation. These are laconic people.

The pastoral calm is shattered whenever the drunk, raging Kiddi, who lives next door, shows up. It is a prickly, complicated relationship, depicted with documentary-like forthrightness, bone-dry humour and a genuine, unironic affection for the rural way of thinking.

Sigurdur Sigurjonsson as sheep farmer Gummi in Rams; and Brian Cox as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (right, in hat) in Churchill.
Sigurdur Sigurjonsson as sheep farmer Gummi in Rams; and Brian Cox as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (right, in hat) in Churchill. PHOTO: SALON CHURCHILL

Churchill(PG, 105 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2/5 stars) might also be about a cranky old man, but this particular one was the opposite of tight-lipped.

Brian Cox plays the British Prime Minister in the days just before Operation Overlord, the 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy. The largest invasion attempted by the Allies to date carried huge risk, but was also necessary to deliver the final blow.

This film carries the antidote to the widespread belief that the legendary leader was the same throughout the war: fierce, vital and effortlessly articulate.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man, 2013) shines a light on the side of Churchill few know about - the depression, his guilt over strategic mistakes made as military commander in World War I and his poor treatment of wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) and staff.

There is emphasis on his arguments with Allied generals, played here by Julian Wadham (as Bernard Montgomery) and John Slattery (Dwight Eisenhower), who hold that the PM should stick to politics and avoid meddling in tactical decisions.

The countdown to the Allied invasion of Europe gives urgency and shape to a story in need of it. There is also a "naive viewpoint" in the form of Helen (Ella Purnell), a newly appointed member of the Prime Minister's staff who, handily for the viewer, needs matters of military and government policy explained to her.

None of that structure matters because, like the recent Viceroy's House, this is a work based on history that is let down by contrived, poorly integrated human-interest elements, such as the father-daughter-like bond that grows between Helen and the PM.

The scenes in which Churchill is made to feel old and useless as a military adviser feel repetitive. After the third time in which same squabbles happen, the movie feels stuck in a loop - how many times must an old man be kicked in order to elicit sympathy?

Anyone making biopics of the famous should remember this: How it all turned out is all written in history books. You might get away once with teasing viewers about how it all might have turned out differently, but do it again, and again, for the sake of drama and you might be marched into a film-making court-martial.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'The folly of old age'. Print Edition | Subscribe