Sunday, January 12, 2014

RIP Peter O'Toole

Peter O'Toole died on December 14.  I can't say I'm a big fan of O'Toole.  I saw him in Lawrence of Arabia but I've missed many of his most famous film performances - BecketThe Lion in WinterGoodbye, Mr. Chips and Man of La Mancha.  The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center screened Dean Spanley in honor of O'Toole's passing.  I went to the 6:30 screening on New Year's Eve.

Dean Spanley starring Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown & Peter O'Toole; directed by Toa Fraser; (2008) - Official Website

Sam Neill plays the eponymous Dean Spanley.  Dean is Spanley's title not his first name.  Spanley is an Anglican priest in early 20th century New Zealand.

The story centers around the relationship between Fisk Sr. (O'Toole) and his sole remaining son, Fisk Jr. (Northam).  A second son was killed during the Boer Wars which Sr. has managed to seemingly forget.  The firmly entrenched tradition is for Fisk Jr. to visit Sr. on Thursdays.  Boring of the routine, Jr. drags Sr. to a lecture on the "transmigration of souls"; i.e. reincarnation.  Although the lecture is boring and Sr. thinks the idea to be poppycock, Jr. meets two important people.  First, he sees Spanley in the lecture which surprises him given Spanley's position in the church.  He also meets Wrather (Bryan Brown), a "conveyancer" which seems to be another name for purveyor.

Several chance meetings with Spanley lead Jr. to believe there is some kismet at work.  He decides to strike up a friendship with Spanley who doesn't seem to interested until Jr. tells him he has an Imperial Tokay which is a sweet wine made for the Hapsburg Royal family.  This piques Spanley's interest and he agrees to dinner.  The problem is that Jr. doesn't have an Imperial Tokay and is unable to procure one from the local wine merchant.  Stepping into the breach is Wrather who knows people who knows people.

With Imperial Tokay in hand, Jr. hosts Spanley but is surprised at the ardor of Spanley's oenophilia.  Spanley's inhalation of aroma of the wine sends him to near ecstasy.  And once he gets a few glasses of the wine into him, Spanley begins to speak as if he can recall past reincarnations.

Spanley's behavior greatly intrigues Jr. who urges Wrather to procure more Imperial Tokay.  Wrather agrees but, his curiosity whetted, stipulates that he wants to attend the next dinner with Spanley.  Agreeing to the arrangement, Jr. host the two men again the next week.  Again Spanley enters a trancelike state after a glass of the wine.  This time, he begins to speak more specifically to his previous life as a dog.  His words remind him of stories he has heard about his father as a boy.  Sr. loved a dog named Wag (which happens to be Spanley's initials and nickname - WAG Spanley) who ran away.

Convinced that Spanley is the reincarnation of Sr's dog, Jr. invites his father over the following week but doesn't tell him about Spanley's unusual stories.  Once assembled and suitably lubricated, Spanley goes on to tell of his life with "the Master" and the particulars of his disappearance.  In this seen, Neill is masterful in an extended soliloquy's where he describes the joy of being of dog and the tragic fate which befell him.  Sr. is emotionally moved by the experience and his heretofore detached demeanor is replaced in the final scene with image of Sr. playing with a new dog.

Dean Spanley is a modestly paced film which builds to its climax slowly.  The payoff is significant and the result of outstanding performances by Neill and O'Toole.  Neill has the more difficult part with his long monologues in the character of a dog.  However, O'Toole some conveys a sense of his long past youth in brief interludes with Northam as his son.  I was very impressed by Dean Spanley.

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