Its been a while since I was sitting in a small, dark room with lots of OAP's close to the end of their lives, coughing chunks of lung into their popcorn (it beats looking like a paedo sitting in a dark room full of kids though). Thats because it takes a very special kind of film to bring the silver haired brigade out to our cinema. And, if you can say nothing else about Dean Spanley, it is a very special film. It also helps if the film is as inoffensive as possible (not a jot of violence, sex or swearing in sight) and it helps if one of their own is on the screen. If that 'one of their own' is Peter O'Toole the most consumate professional in the world it helps doubley.
Its hard to know where to begin with Dean Spanley, so I'll start at the beginning. Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) is a wealthy batchelor with a cranky, misanthropic father, Fisk Senior (Peter O'Toole), who has never really mourned the loss of his son and Junior's brother. At a seminar on reincarnation of the soul Junior meets Dean Spanley a strange type of priest, at times painfully boring and at other times weirdly eccentric. None more so than when the priest has had a drop of Tokay. A rare drink that has some even rarer qualities on the Dean.
I'd like to not give the game away at the effect of the Tokay but I just can't continue to write unless I address the crux of the film. The drink makes the priest transgress into his previous life as a dog. So the main gist of the film is Junior tring to get the priest as drunk as possible. As pitches go its a bloody hard one but one that is saved by some good performance and one great one. Who? Who's great? I hear you slavishly beg. Well, Peter, of course.
While Sam Neills doggie monologues are great fun and Jeremy supports ably, the film is enlivened by Sir O'Toole to such a great extent you almost forget the absurdity of it all. Whether its shouting 'Poppycock!' at everything that differs even slightly from his worldview point or spouting said worldview points to disbeleiving passers by he makes Senior come alive. By doing so the emotional wallop of the last reel is guaranteed to floor you. As for the combination of existentialism, reincarnation, canines and pissed clergy, I'll for one say its the oddest film of the year. And deserves a prize in the end of year 'Owen Oscars' just for that.