Magazine article The Spectator

A Dog's Life

Magazine article The Spectator

A Dog's Life

Article excerpt

Dean Spanley

U, Nationwide

Dean Spanley is a family film and a sweet film and a kindly film with the most delicious cast (Peter O'Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Judy Parfitt) but it is also a slow film -- the first hour is almost unbearably uneventful -- which could do with a bit of a rocket up its backside, not that I am volunteering to do it. Hell's bells, it's nearly Christmas! I don't have time for rockets and backsides! As it is, I'm waking nightly at 4 a. m. thinking, 'Brandy butter; what's all that about, then?' Rockets and backsides! You do it, if it means so much to you, but do leave alone the final half an hour, which is engrossing and delightful and stars a smashing Welsh spaniel with fabulous, flappy ears. Yes, I'm a dog person and would actually like to point out at this juncture that a dog is not just for Christmas, particularly if it goes on to higher education and wants to be a doctor. If this is the case, you'd better start putting money aside right now.

Now, where were we? Oh, yes, Dean Spanley: a curious name for a curious, doggy film based on the 1936 novella by Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish fantasy writer who, I'm assuming, wrote fantastically whenever his lording schedule would allow. It's set in London during Edwardian times and stars Northam as Henslowe Fisk who, every Thursday, dutifully visits his spectacularly grumpy, snappy father, Fisk Snr, as played by Peter O'Toole with great curmudgeonly campness and quite a lot of eyeliner. Fisk Snr, it turns out, lost his other son in the Boer War, and then his wife shortly afterwards, but has yet to grieve, or deal with this double loss in any way. We know that something is going to make him thaw, that this is the story's purpose -- we're quite stupid, but not that stupid -- but what? Bring on the dogs?

Not yet, alas, not yet. First, enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), whom both Fisk men initially meet at a lecture on reincarnation -- not much of a lecture, Art Malik says a couple of fairly tedious things and then buggers off -- and whom Fisk Jr. then cultivates to surreal effect: under the influence of a particular Hungarian liqueur, the Dean will begin to reminisce about his previous life as a dog.

The sniffing, the turning in feverish circles when excited, the joy of another dog's scent on a lamppost, but not how much it costs when a dog wants to study medicine. …

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