Film Review - August 1995



The Cinema of SAM NEILL

Sam Neill, star of Jurassic Park and The Piano, returns this month in Country Life.

By Marianne Gray

SAM NEILL is respectably demure when we meet in Cannes, clad in dark and light blue, hairline slipping slightly but still one of those actors whose good looks and deep measured voice are the stuff of leading men.

He's in Cannes to talk about Country life, an Australian adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and his own 54-minute film, a personal journey through New Zealand called Cinema of Unease, which is part of the British Film Institute's Century of Cinema series.

A controversial documentary on a quest for the country's soul, it is engagingly honest and bitingly witty but often gives a less than sunny view of God's own country.

"If it irritates the government and gets up their nose, that's great," Neill says with a laugh. 'It's not a personal attack and I'm definitely not a buff or a critic. I just put into the film what I found. It's a sort of self-styled road movie of my thoughts on architecture, Empire, sheep, education, madness, myself, everything and especially the country's film industry."

Neill, 45, whose career had gone from directing documentaries for the New Zealand Film Unit to starring in two of the decade's most successful films, Jurassic Park and The Piano, until recently made a career of stealing scenes from those billed above him. Now he's the one who gets top billing and is savouring every second of it.

While on one hand he says casually that he's lazy and hopeless in business, on the other, with an air of relief bordering on disbelief, he admits to feeling he's sort of done OK. His sane but vulnerable realization is quite an appalling trait to observe in one who makes a living from acting.

"I love my job and finally I reckon I've earned some respect so I don't have to take any shit no more," says Neill. "Less and less do I panic and feel the background fear that the last film may be the last job ever."

But, given the choice of being leading man or villain, he's quick to say he'd choose the latter any day. "The job of the leading man is the hardest of all. The easiest job is to play the villain because you have things to hang your various hats on, or you've got a limp or a squint or a bad back like Richard III. My mother always sighs and her eyes roll to the ceiling and she says: 'I know you will be another baddie'. But it's underrated how much fun you can have playing bad characters. It's great to play one of those really bad buggers!"

Born in Northern Ireland where his New Zealander, Sandhurst-trained father was serving with the British army, Sam Neill, christened Nigel (Sam was his family nickname), lived in a lighthouse keeper's cottage in County Down until he was eight. They emigrated to New Zealand. He sees himself as a Pacific Rim dweller and calls home a house in an unnamed part of NZ.

"I'm not about to buy a place in Los Angeles. I'd rather commute there. I feel Hollywood is a necessary evil, rather than an enticing magnet. It's a factory town where it's rather like living on site."

His career break came in 1979 in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, a film he did on his first trip to Australia for a salary of less than 4,000, and one which impressed the great James Mason so much that he paid for Neill's airfare over to England for an Elstree screen test. Since then there have been more than two dozen films and at least a dozen TV series (notably Reilly, Ace of Spies and Kane and Abel).

Now, sixteen years later, he's back with his Brilliant Career co-star Judy Davis, making Children of the Revolution, playing a double agent for Australian intelligence to Ms Davis's 1950s' Australian communist.

"There were very few communists from that part of the world so it'll be fairly new ground for most of us to cover," he remarks.

Neill recently finished Victory, a film based on Joseph Conrad's novel set in the Malaccas, in which he plays an English opium addict, "a gay psychopath in an Old Harrovian tie". Just before that he made Restoration, playing King Charles II wearing massive wigs he could barely stand up in, with co-stars Meg Ryan, Robert Downey Junior and Hugh Grant.

"I'm very pleased with all of them but I particularly enjoyed working for Michael Blakemore on Country Life with buddies Greta Scacchi, Kerry Fox and John Hargreaves. We shot the film in New South Wales on a sheep station set against a post World War One background. I play the local doctor who's loved by the plain daughter Sally [Fox], but loves the beautiful young wife [Scacchi] of Sally's feckless father [Blakemore, who also directs].

"It was a lovely film to make and I feel we really hit the mark in terms of feel and style. My character, Dr Max Askey, is a pacifist and a bit of a leftie at a time when such beliefs were very unfashionable. He also has a secret- well, not so secret-drinking problem.

"I have always enjoyed working with friends and particularly like to work with women filmmakers [like Jane Campion on The Piano and Antonia Fraser on Restoration]. But generally speaking, I'm pretty happy doing whatever project I'm part of. I even like special effects and computer-generated images. I don't think I'll be sidelined by thirty androids really.

"I have no career plan. My motives can be seen as either an adroit set of moves across a chessboard or just a blind lurch from one thing to another. I guess things happen because of my life-time career of brilliance!" He chortles boyishly. "I'm sure the only reason I get work is usually because I'm the only actor available!"




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