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Dean Spanley

Philip Reeve suggests you all rent Dean Spanley (Toa Fraser, 2008).

This is a film that I came across by accident, knowing nothing more about it than that it stars Peter O'Toole and was set in Edwardian England.  We saw the trailer for it on another DVD we'd rented, and since we're always struggling to find things to put on our rental list we thought we'd take a punt on it.  Peter O'Toole; Edwardian outfits; surely it would while away a wet evening?  To my surprise, it turned out to be the best film I've seen all year, and possibly all century.

It started a little unpromisingly (it's a New Zealand/British co-production, which, perhaps unfairly, suggests state-aided stodge to me, and the opening scenes are all gloomy interiors).  Peter O'Toole plays a grumpy, curmudgeonly old man, obsessively set in his ways, who refuses to admit to any grief over the death of his wife, or of his favourite son, killed in the South African war.  His surviving son, played by Jeremy Northam, dutifully pays him a joyless visit once a week, and one day, in an effort to vary the routine, persuades him to attend a talk on reincarnation.  There they encounter Sam Neill's Dean Spanley (who's the Dean of a cathedral, not just someone called Dean) and Bryan Brown's Australian jack-the-lad, Wrowther.  From that point the story veers off in a rather strange and unexpected direction involving vintage tokay and some dogs.   The dour, oppressive mood of the early scenes lightens, broadens, and by the end it has become extraordinarily sweet and touching.

I won't go into any more detail about the plot, for fear I might spoil it for you.  All you need to know is that this is a film worth seeing.   Peter O'Toole is superb, of course, but Sam Neill is magnificent too; we've so often seen him phoning in performances in tripe like Jurassic Park that it's easy to forget what a good actor he is.  And how nice to see a fantasy film (and Dean Spanley is a fantasy, of a particularly Edwardian type) which doesn't rely on effects or shocks but just unfolds in a series of conversations between four men.

It may make you want to buy a dog.

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