14 February 2009

What an old dog can teach us

New Zealand director Toa Fraser's new film, Dean Spanley, is a gentle, whimsical comedy that deals with one of the abiding fascinations of earlier ages: the notion of past lives and reincarnation. It is a low-profile New Zealand-British co-production that deserves a much wider audience outside the realm of film festivals.

New Zealand film fans may recall the mean-spiritedness surrounding the funding arrangements for the film, with critics of its New Zealand Film Commission backing arguing that the film had nothing to do with New Zealand aside from its director and one of its lead actors, Sam Neill. Perhaps the critics have a point, although parts of the film were made in New Zealand. But when a film is this good, it seems that this might be a case of a decision that works in practice, but not in theory.

The story of Dean Spanley is taken from a short novel by the Irish author Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, which describes a meeting with a clergyman with a taste for an impressively rare Hungarian imperial tokay. Upon consuming said wine, Spanley mysteriously reverts to a previous life - as a loyal and adventurous spaniel.

Sam Neill's performance as Spanley is perfect, in that it could so easily have been played for cheap laughs. Instead, his restrained performance ensures that the fantastical plot remains believable. The legendary Peter O'Toole is excellent as the elderly Scrooge-like figure of Mr Fisk, snapping at his frustrated son, Fisk the Younger (played by Jeremy Northam), who is compelled to push him around town in a bath-chair. Bryan Brown, who seemed omni-present in the 1980s but later faded from prominence, is well-cast as the humorous Australian fixer Mr Wrather.

Overall, Dean Spanley is a pleasure to watch, and it is to be hoped that a film with this much character and genuine straightforward appeal succeeds in a wide range of markets. It's just been picked up for US distribution by Miramax, so here's hoping they promote it smartly. The film benefits from a solid story with literary pedigree, pleasing touches of humour, and a strong collective performance from its ensemble cast. Special mention must also go to the film score by former Mutton Bird Don McGlashan, who has created a deft blend of music that enhanced key scenes while not seeming out of place in the film's Edwardian setting.

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