This review is from: Dean Spanley [DVD] (DVD)
A remarkable treasure for dog-lovers, whimsical dreamers, and philosophers alike. Perhaps even the odd cat fancier could appreciate its charms; animosity between cats and dogs is humorously depicted. I don't understand why this beautifully filmed, surprisingly profound story isn't more widely known, a gem bought to life via a collaboration of British and New Zealander talents. It's directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser, and boasts a superb script by British writer Alan Sharp, with his adaptation of Irish author Lord Dunsany's "My Talks with Dean Spanley."
Sam Neill is superb as the Dean, with his finely nuanced performance as a respectable Edwardian English cleric who remarkably can recall his past life when plied with ample quantities of golden Hungarian Tokay wine. I enjoy first-person narratives, and Jeremy Northam is superb as Henslowe Fisk. His curmudgeon father (the inimitable Peter O'Toole), Fisk Senior, brusquely calls him Fisk Junior on his son's regular Thursday visits. Father and son suffer from prolonged grief from the loss of Henslowe's younger brother Harrington (Xavier Horan), who was killed in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. His mother was felled by this loss, dying shortly after, and Fisk Junior blames his father for his mother's premature death. She had no one to turn to in her husband; his feelings are closed.
In an attempt to entertain the brittle and caustic Old Man, Fisk Junior wheels him out one autumn afternoon, while leaves blow like memories across sidewalks, to a lecture by swami (Art Malik). The subject is the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. Talks of this type and the occult fascinated the British public after waves of war and loss. The lecture is attended by local clergyman, Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). The swami seems to pull thoughts out of the heads of his audience, especially old Fisk Senior and Dean Spanley, much to the umbrage of two ladies who love cats. Later, at their Gentleman's Club, Fisk Junior speaks with Dean Spanley, and something the Dean says about the complexity of spiritual reality prompts Fisk Junior to want to further his acquaintance. The Dean has a pronounced fondness for Tokay, so as his bargaining tool, Fisk turns to Wrather (Bryan Brown), another gentleman at the lecture, who is a "procure," to acquire this rare delight.
And then the story takes off, wandering to paths both wondrous and mysterious. Judy Parfitt, as house keeper Mrs. Brimley, is also wonderful. O'Toole masterfully depicts the slow crumbling of cold Fisk's brittle, cold persona in the face of the numinous. It's hard to describe how moving these scenes are, set around a crackling fire in an Edwardian town-home, and then moving to the trampings of dogs. All the listeners are entranced, as the rich memories unfold. Even Wrather discovers something about himself. A breakthrough not unlike Scrooge's caused an immense change in Fisk Senior, and for the first time, love and understanding draw father and son together, when the wound of grief is finally opened to comfort. This is a story that pleases the imagination, and is surprisingly meaningful, whatever the truth of dogs, life, death, and beyond. Enjoy!
Though set in another time-period altogether, for those of you willing to on a wild, uncanny ride into rough 1970s-era England, I also highly recommend: Life on Mars.