Australian Arts

A very polished performance

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

2 July 2022

9:00 AM

Sam Neill is one of those Kiwis we want to claim as we do everyone from Russell Crowe to Neill’s friend the late great John Clarke, comedian extraordinaire. It figures because they work here and the accent differences disappear. Sam Neill, of course, always spoke the next best thing to the Queen’s English and you might recall the pure glamour of evil –– the seduction of iniquity as the Church used to phrase it –– which he brought to the role of the Knight Templar villian Bois-Guilbert in that old lavish TV version of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with Anthony Andrews from Brideshead in the title role and the man who became Neill’s mentor, James Mason, as Isaac the Jew. Away at school he renounced what he thought was the poncey name of Nigel and became Sam Neill, his first deliberate choice of role playing, he thinks.

It’s interesting when you ask him about New Zealand punching above its weight culturally he goes sideways and talks about fine arts.

‘I think we’re extraordinarily blessed for some reason with some of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Colin McCahon, for instance, Bill Hammond. These are gods as far as I’m concerned. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that sometimes little places can produce great things. Danish television – who knew?’

His own new streamer The Twelve certainly appears on the strength of the first couple of hours to bear comparison with the great Danish thrillers like The Killing and Sam Neill gives a very polished performance as an ironic QC defending a woman accused of murder. Neill talks fondly of the women he’s worked with, ‘Fantastic women over the years – Meryl Streep [as Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels], Susan Sarandon a couple of times, Angelica Huston, Blanchett.’  He’s also starring just at the moment with his long-term dinosaur partner Laura Dern in the new Jurassic Park. And he talks with great fondness of John Clarke and says their favourite gig together was a joy. ‘I still think the best time we had together was Death in Brunswick’. He describes that knockabout inner-Melbourne comedy as ‘great’.

Sam Neill in fact had a long apprenticeship on the other side of the camera making docos in his twenties for Film New Zealand – a process that had its culmination in 1995 with one his made about New Zealand film, Cinema of Unease, which the BBC showed in a series which included such eminences as Martin Scorcese on American cinema and Stephen Frears on British.

It was therefore natural that when he and John Clarke came to film Shane Maloney’s comical Murray Whelan detective stories as telemovies Sam Neill was the more directorial of the two. The experience of doing The Brush-Off, however, came with a cautionary message.

‘That’s the only time I’ve actually directed actors,’ he says. ‘I actually loved that whole experience. I was even dreaming of it.’ He laughs. ‘But it made me determined that I would never direct again. Everyone depends on you, everyone wants an answer. It was great but it was too much.’ Needless to say he glows at the thought of having acted for a very great director, Claude Chabrol. ‘I liked Chabrol a lot,’ he says.

But you get the strongest sense with Sam Neill of that Yeats line: ‘And say my glory was I had such friends.’ He did a film with Peter O’Toole where the silver-voiced star of Lawrence of Arabia played a lord and Sam Neill played the reincarnation of his dog in the form of a vicar.

He tells the story of Leo McKern blind in one eye and almost deaf and everyone poised for him to come out with his line only to hear the great voice of Rumpole boom out to the rolling camera, ‘Have you had your per diems yet?’

If you ask Sam Neill about an alternate fate he talks about how he was knocked back for a job as a TV reporter and his admiration for foreign correspondents in the line of fire in places like the Ukraine. He loves producing wine but says it was his acting career that paid for the vines in the first place.

A lifetime ago Sam Neill was directed by one of the most popular novelists ever to emerge from Australasia, the detective story writer Ngaio Marsh. And this is a reminder of the fact that J.K. Rowling who outsells Agatha Christie is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

I remember listening to the Stephen Fry audiobook of it and we were so impressed by it that we sent the CDs – as they were in those days – to the family of my brother Greg the consitutional lawyer who later became a vice-chancellor. His wife Anne and the kids were so riveted after they had listened to it for some time in the car they just sat dumbstruck, like lunatics, in the garage, waiting for it to end. It was certainly a powerful magic Rowling worked and it’s sad that she’s fallen foul of the very kids – who owe their appetite for reading to her – because of her doubts about the trans movement.

Is it possible anyone could take exception to Barons, the pretty ravishing ABC series about surfers in the late Sixties and early Seventies. There are all sorts of dramas about the manufacture of board shorts and wetsuits and lashings of diversity casting. But the whole show is a winner. Hunter Page-Lochard is terrific as a young Aboriginal guy who’s a draft resister and Jillian Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian, is just as good. None of this casting looks remotely tokenistic because the performances are so individual and vibrant. Nguyen actually does a Helen Garner in the high school she teaches at about sex and it comes across as entirely credible.

It’s an irresistible half-historical, half-reconfigured vision of the Sixties but it will win over both veterans and curious kids.

It is to the tremendous advantage of Barons that the central figure who sets up Bare Feet, the surf business, one Snapper, is played with tremendous authority by Ben O’Toole. He looks a bit like a younger Brendan Cowell and has a staggering presence, a starriness and a magnetism rarely seen among young Australian actors.

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