• Sam Neill as Hec in 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' (Madman Entertainment Pty Ltd)Source: Madman Entertainment Pty Ltd
These five films showcase the many faces of the talented New Zealand actor.
Travis Johnson

3 Dec 2021 - 3:11 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2021 - 4:20 PM

There is a lot to like about Sam Neill, a perennially welcome screen presence, enlivening and invigorating any film or series he graces with his presence, either front and centre or in a supporting role. And he’s been doing it for close to 50 years.

“Avuncular charm” might be the best descriptor of Neill’s appeal – he’s often (though not always – see below) everyone’s favourite uncle, loaded with laid back charisma, sly wit, and a measured appreciation of the finer things in life, such as the wine he produces at Two Paddocks in Central Otago (the flagship pinot noir is a fantastic drop). He’s also absolutely worth a follow on social media, where he frequently posts clips of himself just hanging out on his farm with the various animals he shares it with (most of whom are named after his actor friends).

His screen career started in 1971 with a role in the New Zealand TV movie The City of No and ambled along steadily until his breakthrough role in Roger Donaldson’s excellent thriller Sleeping Dogs in 1977, the first New Zealand film to reach a wide overseas audience. For many Australians, he made his mark as love interest Harry Beecham opposite Judy Davis’ nascent novelist Sybylla Melvin in Gillian Armstrong’s sublime My Brilliant Career (1979), while American crowds were introduced to a very different Neill when he was literally the antichrist in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981).

Doing a point by point of the prolific performer’s career would eat up pages, but it’s worth singling out 1991 as a milestone year, with Neill being horribly menacing in Jane Campion’s The Piano, breezily bohemian as artist Norman Lindsay in John Duigan’s Sirens, and running from dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park. That last is just one of Neill’s frequent forays into genre territory: he’s a horror and science fiction mainstay, with turns in John Carpenter’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994) , Paul WS Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), and the Spierig Brothers Daybreakers (2009), to name just a few.

These days he’s more likely to be found in a mentor role, as in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or Rachel Griffiths’ Ride Like a Girl (2019), although 2022 promises a return to one his signature parts, palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic: World Dominion. In the meantime, for an excellent taste of Neill’s work, SBS World Movies has you covered with this special Sam Neill collection, airing Monday December 6 to Friday December 10. 


Sweet Country (2017)

Warwick Thornton’s excellent Australian Western sees Indigenous man Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) on the run in 1920s Arnhem Land after he is forced to shoot a malevolent farmer (Ewen Leslie). In pursuit is a posse, led by Bryan Brown’s jaded policeman, that includes Sam Neill’s lay preacher Fred Smith, a pious man who counsels compassion over vigilante justice. A searing account of racism in colonial Australia, Sweet Country pulls few punches, and Neill is superb as the film’s moral centre.

Warwick Thornton on his Venice award-winning film, 'Sweet Country'
The Australian director/cinematographer took out the Special Jury Prize in Venice for his Outback Western.

See it Monday, 6 December at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies. Sweet Country is also streaming at SBS on Demand:


Dean Spanley (2008) 

Based on Lord Dunsany's 1936 novella My Talks with Dean Spanley, this amiable but heartfelt comic fantasy sees Neill as the titular Dean, a Christian clergyman who nonetheless claims to have lived a previous life – as a cocker spaniel. That’s a funny claim to lay, but it’s of particular interest to grieving Mr Fisk (Peter O’Toole) and his son Henslowe (Jeremy Northam), who have lost the latter’s younger brother in war. Combining drawing room comedy with spiritualist fantasy but leavened by the very real trauma of war and loss, Dean Spanley is a sublime little film that feels like a bit like what might result if P.G. Wodehouse wrote Ghost.

See it Tuesday, 7 December at 9.30pm on SBS World Movies. Dean Spanley is also streaming at SBS On Demand:


Skin (2008) 

Based on a true story, Skin tells the tale of Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo), a South African woman born to white parents who is classified as coloured due to her dark complexion and struggles to make a life for herself under the Apartheid regime. As Sandra’s father, Abraham, Neill is arguably the villain of the piece, disowning his daughter after she falls pregnant to a black man. Nonetheless, he delivers a nuanced, thoughtful turn as a racist forced to question his most fundamental assumptions about human dignity in the face of his daughter’s oppression. Challenging and frequently enraging, Skin is a vital real life drama.

'Skin' review: A moving true story with superb performances
Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo) is a black child born in the 1950s to white Afrikaners, unaware of their black ancestry. The film follows her thirty-year journey from rejection to acceptance, betrayal to reconciliation.

See it Wednesday, 8 December at 9.35pm on SBS World Movies. Skin will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs. 


My Brilliant Career (1979) 

Adapted from the novel by Miles Franklin, Gillian Armstrong’s film follows the exploits of Judy Davis’s Sybylla, who dreams of a literary life far from the 19th century Australian farm where she is raised. Neill is debonair as her childhood friend Harry Beecham, who wants to wed the headstrong Sybylla, but can she reconcile her artistic ambitions with marriage? A landmark Australian film, My Brilliant Career is simply essential viewing, and the chemistry between Neill and Davis elevates the whole film.

See it Thursday, 9 December at 9.30pm. My Brilliant Career will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs. 


Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016) 

Tearaway Maori street kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is sent to a foster home on a remote New Zealand farm, only to accidentally find himself on the run in the wilderness with his reluctant mentor, Hector (Sam Neill), a gruff bushman with no time for city kids. Will they bond? Of course. Is this one of New Zealand’s greats films? Unarguably. Writer and director Taika Waititi, working from the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, weds big laughs to genuine pathos, resulting in a world-beating, heart-warming, comic adventure for the ages.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople review: Superbly written, beautifully performed and quite frankly hilarious
Taika Waititi's latest is funny, sweet and harks back to a certain kind of innocent 80s action-adventure.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Interview with Sam Neill
Sam Neill talks to Fiona Williams about the daggy retro appeal of ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ -- and reveals which movie from his storied career is considered "the absolute low point".

See it Friday 10 December 9.30pm. Hunt For the Wilderpeople will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs. 


PLUS: Tommy's Honour (2016)

You can also catch Neill in Tommy's Honour, a moving story about the real-life founders of the modern game of golf, streaming now at SBS On Demand.

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