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Sam Neill has been the cornerstone of contemporary New Zealand cinema. Ever since his telling 1995 documentary Cinema of Unease, which surveyed New Zealand films and their recurrent thematic elements, Neill has led the way in establishing what makes a NZ film. His career took a dramatic turn thereafter, with Neill choosing instead to focus his efforts on acting rather than film scholarship. As a result, Neill has featured in several local and international cinematic hits. Listed below are some of his greatest roles that have seen him immortalized in the pantheon of Kiwi acting greats.
Easily New Zealand’s greatest art-house export and the brainchild of auteur Jane Campion, The Piano chronicles a salacious love triangle between Ada (Holly Hunter), Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) and Baines (Harvey Keitel). Ada has been mute since she was six years old. She travels from Scotland with her daughter (Anna Paquin) and her grand piano to colonial New Zealand for an arranged marriage. When her husband, a stoic settler (Neill), sells the piano to Baines, Ada and Baines come to an agreement – a secret one. Ada can win her piano back by playing for him as he acts out his desire for her. Neill’s performance as the ambivalent Stewart won him applause and commendations of many European critics. Perhaps it was a true case of art imitating reality for Neill, as he flaunted his naturally British-Kiwi accent for the colonial-era film.
Asked to play the audacious Dr Alan Grant, Neill, under the tutelage of none other than Steven Spielberg, became an integral part of the Jurassic Park franchise. With a film logo that has become synonymous with success and dinosaur theme parks everywhere, Jurassic Park was to be one of the most successful franchises in history, with a small-town Kiwi part of it. While it was strictly American accents in this blockbuster hit, Neill still brought a huge amount of pride to a country that still goes giddy whenever any Kiwi features on the silver screen.
The Hunt for Red October was the next Hollywood hit to feature on Neill’s CV. The film follows the drama of an escaped Soviet submarine in November of 1984. As it heads toward the USA, the audience will wonder if the captain is merely trying to escape the despotic Soviet regime or attempting to start a war. Neill played Captain Borodin, confidant to Head Captain Marko Ramius, played by the legendary Sean Connery. With an A-List ensemble including Connery, Alec Baldwin and James Earl Jones, it is easy to see how Neill was quickly beginning to make a name for himself in 90’s Hollywood.
Following his success with Jurassic Park and The Hunt for Red October, Neill then took up what was an unusual role for him. Attempting to break the shackles of the dreaded ‘type-cast’, Neill played the main antagonist, Dr William Weir, in the sci-fi thriller, Event Horizon. The film follows a rescue crew who investigates a spaceship that disappeared into a black hole and has now returned – with someone or something new onboard. The antagonist role allowed Neill to branch out and show off his dynamism, proving that he was willing and able to play the despicable antagonist as well as the much-loved heroic roles. Event Horizon was to be a masterstroke for Neill as he and fellow up-and-comer Laurence Fishburne were to carve out gleaming careers for themselves in the years to come.
Neill’s most recent role came in the New Zealand comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Directed by renowned Kiwi comedy director Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople marked a return to his roots for Neill. His first significant role in a New Zealand feature since The Piano, Neill played the quintessential Kiwi bushman Uncle Hec. The 2016 hit followed a national manhunt for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle (Neill) who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush. Beautifully shot and hilariously funny, Neill channeled the ultimate ‘man-alone’ Bruno Lawrence in his role as Uncle Hec. How fitting then for Neill to channel the ‘man-alone’ archetype that he had coined in his film thesis Cinema of Unease, where New Zealand was first brought to the attention of the talented and dynamic Sam Neill.