Dean Spanley

An odd film, certainly, but a great one.

Released in 2008, certified UK-U. Reviewed on 19 Dec 2008 by Scott Morris
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Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing for some people, and let's say from the off that if it happens to be a tricky thing for you, gentle reader, then you might want to skip lightly over this shaggy dog story that takes that title almost literally.

In Edwardian times, entertainment was somewhat more difficult to come across than these idle days of Sky+ and Xboxes. Seeking diversion one day on his visits to his interminably crotchety old father Fisk Senior (Peter O'Toole), Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) wheels him off to a lecture on the transubstantiation of souls, at which they bump into Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) of this parish. Surprised to see a man of the cloth at such an event, Fisk strikes up a few short conversations there and at a few other chance encounters that leads to a rather strange admission from Dean after a few snifters of his favourite tipple, Tokai. He seems to think he used to be a dog.

What follows is essentially Fisk tempting Dean Stanley into various dinner engagements with the lure of the rare, expensive Imperial Tokai procured by another chance acquaintance, Australian trader Wrather (Bryan Brown), into spilling more details about his life and experiences as a mutt. Which, for the most part, turns out to be every bit as bizarre as it sounds, to the point that there was a quarter hour stretch about halfway through the film where I was genuinely questioning my own sanity.

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It should, perhaps, be less of a surprise to more cultured types, this being an adaptation of a novel by Lord Toff (*) from 1936. As such it's a been a long time to wait for the film to come out, but by Jove, dear boy, it's certainly been worth it. I do not think I have grinned so widely and so often at a film in the last year, or perhaps this decade.

I'm not sure where to start enthusing from. Let's take the marquee name first, with O'Toole's sublime, hilarious stiff upper lipped old man routine. If there's a single better portrayal of a grouch outside of the Muppets Christmas Carol I can't think of one, and the script provides him with such cutting, elegant barbs that it's impossible not to be amused by him even while hardly cutting a particularly likeable character. This changes as events unfold, albeit in ways I don't think I can relate without having the men in white coats taking me away somewhere safe and padded.

Sam Neill takes on what would seem to be an almost impossible role and turns it into something remarkable, infusing the character with a sense of dignity and charm. Even though, at it's core, it's a crazy drunk telling you he used to be a dog. A bit of a hard sell, but trust me, it works. While Bryan Brown could be accused of playing Bryan Brown, again, Wrather is a perfect fit for his brash antipodean antics and provides a welcome voice of sanity for much of the piece.

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The real heart of the film, however, is the strained relationships between Fisks Senior and Junior, with details of their relationship teased out with perfect timing over the piece to ensure sympathy with the pair of them. As narrator of things Jeremy Northam and his character are perhaps forced over a little too much to the exposition side of things, but O'Toole is of course more than capable of picking up the emotional slack in the final reels.

And it does get rather emotional by the time the credits roll, but in a genuinely heartwarming way with a minimum of schmaltz or sentimentality. It's the sort of deeply funny, touching, feelgood movie that's very easy to make unbearably twee, and very difficult to absolutely right. The last film I recall of a similar cut that does so many things so correctly would be the excellent The World's Fastest Indian, and this is even better than that.

I do not recall grinning quite so much in a cinema for a good long while. Easily one of the best films of the year and highly recommended.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 5/5 TippyMarks.

(*) - Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, pen-name Lord Dunsany. Lord Toff seems more succinct.

Toa Fraser
Cast list:
Jeremy Northam (Fisk Junior)
Sam Neill (Dean Spanley)
Bryan Brown (Wrather)
Peter O'Toole (Fisk Senior)