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Dean Spanley


Stars: Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt, Art Malik, Dudley Sutton, Ramon Tikaram

Director: Tod Fraser

Both a father-and-son story and a cleric's accounts of his previous existence as a dog (a spaniel, of course), Dean Spanley, set in 1904, is a charmer when it gets going, although, despite a few droll moments early on, it is slow to get to the pith of things.

O'Toole, in the nearest he'll ever get to playing Scrooge, is Fisk, a miserable if apparently wealthy old man who has refused to grieve over the death of a son killed in the Boer War. His other son, Henslowe (Northam), still visits him on Thursdays, a habit which he has come to describe as 'the weekly ritual'.

This soulless succesion of stiff conversations is broken by a visit to a swami (Malik) lecturing on The Transmigration of Souls - in other words, reincarnation. Asked if she believes in this, Fisk's housekeeper (Parfitt, channelling Kathleen Harrison) replies 'No, I don't believe in letting foreigners in.'

At the lecture, Henslowe encounters Dean Spanley (Neill) and, on a whim, invites him to dinner with the bait of his favourite tipple, the Hungarian dessert wine Tokay, obtained for him by an Australian 'facilitator' (Brown) with a finger in many pies. Under the influence of the wine, the Dean reveals his former life as a dog called Wag, coincidentally the name of Old Fisk's favourite pooch, who disappeared mysteriously when Fisk was a boy.

Funny here and here, the film becomes moving towards the end as Spanley's history reaches its climax at a third Tokay-fuelled session, attended for the first time by old Fisk himself. Cultured performances lend this oddity a certain charm, though it won't be to everybody's taste.

David Quinlan

New Zealand/UK 2008. UK Distributor: Icon. Colour by FilmLab.
100 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: U.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 09 Dec 2008