Monday, 20 October 2008

Dean Spanley (2008)

The one thing that is guaranteed to annoy us time and again -- and to some extent undermining the pleasure of the film about to be viewed -- is the incredibly awful time-keeping at the London Film Festival. If a film is scheduled for say 6 p.m., it is reasonable to expect it to start within a few minutes of that time and to not have to wait until the many latecomers are seated. This showing was particularly delayed, not only for the aforementioned reason, but also because the Festival director had a huge posse of special guests to wheel up on the stage and for some of them to speak a few unnecessary words. There were so many on this occasion that half of them were left standing on the side aisle while others including the very frail Peter O'Toole were placed on display (to rapturous applause) but not asked to say anything; he looked as bemused as I felt.

Eventually we were permitted to watch the movie! It is an extremely odd and extremely lightweight confection which might have been dismissable were it not for the sparkling turns from O'Toole and Sam Neill. Set in Edwardian England, O'Toole is an old duffer living in a huge house with only his housekeeper for company after the deaths of his younger son and wife. Dutiful elder son Jeremy Northam visits once a week, but finds it heavy-going and on one fateful Thursday -- for want of anything better to do -- he takes his father to a very boring lecture on the transmigration of souls. There he first sees Neill's eponymous clerical gent whom he subsequently encounters with some frequency. Fascinated by his strange demeanour and his apparent love for tokay, he invites him to dinner. In his cups -- after a few glasses of the syrupy brew -- Neill tends to regress to what he believes to be a previous existence as a faithful dog. As luck would have it, O'Toole often goes on about a wonderful dog that he lost in his youth (one of the "seven great dogs" in the world), and when these two characters are finally brought together, O'Toole becomes able to locate the heart which he has refused to acknowledge all these years.

Strange? Very! The layered acting from these two leads are what make the film memorable. Northam and Bryan Brown as a colonial enabler (he is the one who manages to keep finding the increasingly expensive bottles of tokay) are OK, but not irreplaceable. The same could not be said of the exquisite turns from O'Toole and Neill.
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