Dean Spanley (2008)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

One of the quirkier movies I have seen, this film is not widely distributed or available in the United States, but has met with modest success overseas.

 

Every Thursday, the younger Fisk (Jeremy Northam) must suffer through the presence of his cantankerous and closed-minded father (Peter O'Toole). Their routine rarely differs -- Fisk Jr. turns up, is bored stiff while Fisk Sr. goes on about his complaints about the world and occasionally mentions his love for dogs, they eat the same meal for dinner, much to the frustration of the long-suffering housekeeper (Judy Parfitt), and then the younger man gratefully goes home. One day he decides he has had enough and drags his father along to a local lecture on reincarnation. It is so dull that each of them doze off midway through, but not before meeting Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), who is fascinated and poses some interesting questions. Fisk thinks no more of it until he runs into Dean Spanley again and again... once at the club, and once investigating a cat that has run up a nearby tree. Believing that coincidences do not exist, he decides to get to know the man better and invites him to tea the following week. The invitation includes a bottle of the dean's favorite liquor, which is difficult if not downright impossible to come by -- so he involves a local "get everything" man, Wrather (Brian Brown), in tracking down this particular rare brand.

 

It proves to be an evening that takes an astonishing turn and forever changes not only Fisk's life, but also that of his father. The movie is as a result quite entertaining and even in a certain sense, cute -- but is rather like a caramel, striking and sweet to taste but that leaves no lingering impression. It is essentially about closure and dealing with grief, but uses reincarnation as a means of getting there. At times it is delightfully funny and charming and at others it seems downright absurd, but if you can suspend your belief you will find it a diverting way to spend a couple of hours. Because it does revolve so heavily around reincarnation, it may not be for most audiences -- because in the end, it provides the entire explanation for the story. Past, present, and future lives are discussed frequently, but what makes the movie so quirky is its characters and touching moments. It even made me squeeze out a couple of tears toward the end. The cast is really marvelous -- and perhaps our only opportunity to watch three very talented, different-generation actors play off one another. Neil is particularly good -- expounding on him would give too much away, but he never fails to amuse, while Northam's expressions are absolutely priceless, whether choking down a glass of wine he does not much care for or resisting the urge to smack his father about the head. O'Toole of course steals any scene he is in with his seemingly wide-eyed innocence and overt annoyance at unconventional thoughts.

 

The film is set during the Edwardian era and contains some lovely costumes and settings that are familiar but not so much so that the audience tires of them; it has a look that is wholly unique and all its own. There is also not much to be concerned about in terms of whether or not this is appropriate for the family -- provided of course you can overlook the reincarnation (at the risk of revealing a spoiler, the film concludes that it does exist -- something we catch on to fairly early on). There is quite a bit of social drinking, since that always loosens the dean's tongue, and a few profanities here and there. One or two sexual references are made (this particular liquor is known for loosening corsets as well as tongues). Flashbacks show dogs chasing sheep, horses, and a rabbit -- it's implied that they catch and tear the rabbit apart (we see a brief shot of them growling and pulling on something). It's also implied that the two dogs are shot and killed by a farmer.

 

A certain amount of charm comes in learning the secrets of what motivates dogs, and in this sense the screenplay is clever. To be honest, I am not quite sure what to make of this film -- it was entertaining but not entirely emotionally satisfying. There really is no message in it other than an inference that we should be open minded enough to consider all possibilities, so in the end it may not be beneficial to our minds, but can do no harm either.

  

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