Shiny Shelf


By Stephen Lavington on 29 October 2008

The London Film Festival this year has a program packed with big name releases. Indeed, the latest Bond film is getting its world premiere under the festival’s auspices (imagine that for ‘View to a Kill’ in 1985). However, the true joy here is to be found by poking under the glitzy wrapping of galas and special screenings to find the hidden gems that are unlikely to get big, national releases and will, quite possibly, go completely unnoticed. The magnificently eccentric yet subdued ‘Dean Spanley’ is one of these.

To be fair, this is not a low-key release in the same way as many LFF films, neither no-budget indie nor obscure world cinema (though it is a production of the New Zealand film commission). The cast is a roster of prominent names – Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown – but the biggest draw is Peter O’Toole. It’s easy to patronise an actor of O’Toole’s vintage, in the autumn of his career, and in all likelihood a glowing write-up would have been prompted if O’Toole had simply turned up and remembered his lines but in truth he brings real warmth and feeling to a character presented with a most strange predicament.

This predicament forms the entire basis of an otherwise low-key period piece, set in Norfolk in the early 1900s. O’Toole plays Horatius Fisk, an elderly recluse whose eldest son was killed in the Boer War (Fisk’s wife died of griefsoon afterwards). His other son (Northam) visits his father every Thursday, more from a sense of duty than anything else, until on one such visit he takes Fisk to a lecture on reincarnation. It is from this point that the film takes a turn into the whimsically bizarre. There is no twist as such, more a slow slide into the fantastical which makes the resultant story more about the release of suppressed emotion and the rekindling of love for life than about a witty quirk of the narrative.

This is helped by a universally superb set of performances; Neil as a prim Dean with a taste for Hungarian sweet wine; Brown whiskered and rogueish and Northam as the timid ‘young Fisk’. O’Toole is simply magic whether providing wordless punchlines with his bulging-eyes look of disbelief, a living definition of misanthrope with his grumpy put-downs, or the emotional centre of the film with a truly moving turn in the final re’el.

‘Dean Spanley’ does not have the status of some festival releases, nor will it be as successful subsequently, but it is a lovely, quirky, and affecting bit of cinema. If it does crop up in a limited run later in the year or appears on in the dusty corner of a DVD store it is well worth checking out.

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By Stephen Lavington

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