PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, REVIEW 7: DEAN SPANLEY
So, here we are at the end. This is my last review for PIFF. Hope everyone enjoyed the festival!
Dean Spanley (New Zealand; dir. Toa Fraser)
Dean Spanley is an inconsequential but surprisingly winning puff piece about dogs and reincarnation.
That's right, dogs and reincarnation.
Another quirky comedy from down under, Dean Spanley is set in early 20th-century England, shortly after the Boer War. The Fisks lost first one of their sons to the conflict, and then the mother of the family when grief overtook her. This leaves old man Horatio Fisk (Peter O'Toole, looking like the grim reaper himself these days) and the son he calls the Younger Fisk (Jeremy Northam). Dad is a jaded old man who doesn't go in for sentiment, not even grieving, and is prone to saying whatever is on his mind. This leads to many outbursts that are amusing for those watching, but mortifying for his son.
A chance attendance of an Indian swami's seminar on reincarnation leads Fisk Jr. to meet Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), an open-minded priest whom Horatio has run into before. In addition to his interest in alternative religions, the Dean has a taste for rare Hungarian wine. Fisk Jr. uses this predilection to befriend the clergyman, enlisting an outgoing middleman, Wrather (Bryan Brown), to procure the elusive brown elixir. Once Dean Spanley has tasted of his favorite tipple, he begins to unspool a tale of his own past life as a dog, a narrative that draws in all the other parties involved, revealing deeper connections between them and providing the catalyst for healing in the Fisk clan.
There is neither anything to love nor anything to hate in Dean Spanley. It rolls along at a well-considered pace, each piece of its heartwarming and amusing story falling into place without much fuss. The ensemble cast is all very good at what they do, with Peter O'Toole proving he is still the master showman, and the director, Toa Fraser, knows to stay out of the way and just let them all get on with it. Though Dean Spanley works on all fronts, what makes it an affable pleasure also makes it come off as slight. It's the kind of thing you see, enjoy, and forget.
Unless you're a dog person, and then you might find some deeper meaning in the tale of the puppy that got away. I am a cat person myself and resent that the filmmakers had to resort to tearing down felines in order to build canines up. I suspect dog lovers are so mean spirited because they secretly know they don't have the four legs to stand on. Cats rule, dogs drool!
Dean Spanley plays on 2/21. - PIFF's website at the NW Film Center
Current Soundtrack: Ocean Colour Scene, B-Sides, Seasides & Freerides
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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich