I watched this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been tricky trying to find the time to put this down. I’m also aware that there’s a certain quirkiness that my last film review was The Lovely Bones and I’m now reviewing another film by a New Zealand director also dealing with the topic of life after death. That’s where the similarities end.

The problem with reviewing this type of film is that the less I say the more there is to enjoy, but if I don’t say enough, I don’t know if I’ll be able to persuade you to see it. So at the risk of saying too much, this movie tells the tale of a father and son – Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) and Fisk Senior (Peter O’Toole) who spend every Thursday together in a tortured ritual of going out to do things together. They’re not very close because ever since Fisk Junior’s brother was killed in the Boer War (did I mention this was all set in Edwardian England? Forgive me if I didn’t…) and his mother died of the heartbreak, his father has refused to acknowledge the tragedy except in a bitingly cynical way.

On one particular Thursday, they decide to go to the elegant home of an Indian cricketer living in England to hear a talk by another Indian gentlemen on the topic of reincarnation. The talk itself is pretty boring stuff, but Fisk Junior spots an Anglican minister there – Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) – the Dean being his title, not his first name. They also meet an Australian (Bryan Brown playing Bryan Brown), who can procure anything for anyone – at a price.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long in the film (though did take quite a while when we were watching it on DVD, because we had to keep chasing the kids around and pausing it, but Fisk Junior decides to start catching up with the Dean to find out why an Anglican was so interested in reincarnation. He soon comes to the startling revelation that when the Dean is plied with a certain rare and expensive Hungarian alcohol known as Tokay, he will open and regale listeners with tales of his past life as a dog.

From then on, the movie consists of the various alcohol-induced reminiscences that are dragged from the Dean while under the influence of his beloved Tokay. This either will sound amusing to you (in which case you’re going to love the film) or if you’re my wife, it’s just far too Roald Dahl-like to cope with.

If I’d stopped there, it would have been an amusing story, but when the whole film plays out (and I won’t tell you any more than that), it actually rises up its crazy concept to become a beautifully acted and deeply moving film experience about remembering childhood, dealing with grief, and all sorts of other things. All four actors (because it is essentially a four-hander) rise to the occasion. The Edwardian dialogue – stilted and formal in the earlier moments of the film – becomes absolutely brilliant when you hear Sam Neill rattling off his reminiscences in the gravest of tones. And if Peter O’Toole doesn’t tug at your heart strings by the end of the film – well, then, you’re probably my wife who was still trying to get her head around the whole dog concept.

I wish I hadn’t sent this back to Quickflix so quickly. It’s definitely worth a re-watch. Or a first watch, if you haven’t seen it.

4 1/2 out of 5.

One thought on “DVD Review: Dean Spanley

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