My Life as a Dog

I hadn’t heard of director Toa Fraser but I was drawn to DEAN SPANLEY, his film, for a variety of reasons.

1) The cast is excellent, with the underrated Jeremy Northam, the always excellent Sam Neill, and the indefatigable Peter O’Toole. Plus Bryan Brown (it’s been a while) and Judy Parfitt.

2) The screenplay is by Scottish writer Alan Sharp, who penned ROB ROY, whose resemblance to a classical western is easy to understand when you take into consideration his authorship of ULZANA’a RAID and BILLY TWO HATS. Cinephiles probably prize his screenplay of NIGHT MOVES most dearly of all.

3) The story is by Lord Dunsany, whose stuff I haven’t read but have been intrigued by on reputation alone. Pretty sure I’m going to read some now.

I noticed this film just before it came out, and then failed to see it on release. I’m now recommending EVERYBODY see it. To the above reasons, which I knew of before I watched it, I can add these —

1) It’s an intelligent weepy. It creeps up on you and then gently wrings your tear ducts till they squeak. In dealing with our relationships with our pets, and making a connection to our other, human, relationships, it’s skating on some thin ice, with a treacly Tokay of sentiment just below the surface, but I didn’t feel manipulated: instead I felt that the film illuminated something true about these strange “friendships” we form with animals.

2) Don McGlashan’s sumptuous score walks a similarly fine line, and with grace.

3) Leon Narbey’s cinematography is rich and pleasing, and somehow skirts the dangerous waters of “heritage cinema,” which the plush Edwardian decor brings us close to.

4) I confess to mixed feelings about Fraser’s direction: he presides over magnificent performances, and his filming of them is very solid and sometimes quite elegant, but he occasionally attempts a cutaway to a detail or a wide shot of an environment, and it doesn’t always add anything. The piece is so driven by performances that anything else gets in the way — with the exception of the slomo shots of bounding dogs, with which he is on safe ground. Perhaps a more vigorous and imaginative approach could have added layers of cinematic life to Sharp’s typically epigrammatic and thoughtful script, but what is there is more than enough to satisfy.

On reviewing, I found a lot of unobtrusive craft in the subtle way Fraser weaves the camera around and towards his characters, contributing greatly to the film’s unique, solemn-quirky atmosphere.

I imagine Lasse Hallstrom pitched his new movie, HACHIKO: A DOG’S STORY (Richard Gere + dog = dog) as “It’s MY LIFE AS A DOG, only with a dog.” The damn thing probably works, in terms of uplift and sentiment and a good work-out for the old weeping apparatus, but I suspect I would feel used by it. That’s where DEAD SPANLEY scores.

There’s an oddball plot here: Jeremy Northam is frustrated by his stiff-upper lip dad (O’Toole), who refuses to mourn the son he lost in the Boer War, or his wife, who died from grief. “When a thing goes to the trouble of happening, it is best regarded as inevitable,” is his bluff philosophy. Then Northam meets Spanley (Neill) at a talk on reincarnation, and discovers that the cleric is oddly affected by his favourite tipple, Tokay, which causes him to remember his past life as a Welsh spaniel. More remarkably still, it starts to seem that as a spaniel Neill may actually have belonged to O’Toole — his beloved dog, Wag. “One of the seven great dogs. At any one time, there are only seven.”

Where on earth is this going, you ask, and that indeed is one of the pleasures of the film: not knowing. The purpose of it all is carefully concealed until an hour in, but we were hypnotized by the expert playing and the charming insights into canine psychology afforded by the dean’s glimpses of his previous existence. And it’s all the more unpredictable because the film doesn’t appear to be for anyone, in a commercial sense. Which is refreshing. Most good books aren’t targeted in the rather deplorable way that films have to be, after all. I love genre films, but it’s frustrating to me that you can’t, for example, make a horror film with a child protagonist, despite childhood being a great source of fear, because the audience for horror films is perceived to be teenage, and what teenager wants to watch their kid brother or sister in a movie?

Every copy of DEAN SPANLEY comes with a complimentary Dudley Sutton.

So while DEAN SPANLEY may have suffered from being a hard project to situate in the marketplace, I’m hoping to do something to spread word of mouth that will help at least a few people discover it. The movie deserves it. It not only offers an emotional release, it reflects upon the value and nature of that release, which is one possible way to differentiate between what’s repulsively known as a “tear-jerker” (even porno movies don’t get called “sperm-jerkers”, do they?) and a movie which deals with emotion as subject.

Perhaps, I found myself thinking, we keep animals with shorter lives than themselves, in part to practice our mourning. That, after all, is such a big part of what we have to do in life.

Available from Amazon UK: Dean Spanley [DVD] [2008]

21 Responses to “My Life as a Dog”

  1. “The always excellent Sam Neill”… Okay, I’ll bite. That’s interesting. It was actually Neill’s presence in this that put me off seeing it, despite my love for both Northam (who nearly always seems to pick winners) and O’Toole. I just can’t ever remember watching him without wishing I was watching someone else. I mean… what is he? Still I’m very glad this is good.

  2. Looks great!

    Actuallt, there probably are things I haven’t like Sam N in… I can’t think of any specific titles offhand though. Maybe his loony act in In the Mouth of Madness could have been done better by someone more to the manner born. He really makes a sensational dog though.

  3. Christopher Says:

    I like Sam Neill in MERLIN…One of those I was sure I was going to hate..but ended up being pretty delighted with..

  4. I enjoyed this when I saw it last year, not least for the “Where on earth is this going?” element that you so rightly highlight.

    I’ve been wanting to see Toa Fraser’s previous film, No.2, or Naming Number Two, since Kristin Thompson said good things about it a few years back. It has a very similar-sounding plot to the released-around-the-same-time Sione’s Wedding, which I liked a lot. Unfortunately, neither that film nor Dean Spanley is available in the US at the moment.

    Like you, the gallery of actors intrigued me – I loved seeing Bryan Brown again, even if playing the larrikin is hardly a stretch for him – and I thought that both Sam Neill and Toa Fraser had fun playing around with the parallels between Neill’s character and his repressed role in The Piano; I also couldn’t help thinking that some of Fraser’s shots, especially overheads of teacups and the like, were intended as a homage to/spoof of Jane Campion’s visual approach.

    Of course, as someone who talks to his cats rather more than they probably care for, I responded very much to the emotional side of the film, too…

  5. I have to admit a guilty pleasure for the ‘Solaris with gore’ film Event Horizon, where Neill gets the juiciest line “Where we’re going…we won’t need eyes to see”!

    Though that film is more on my mind at the moment due to just seeing Pandorum (with Dennis Quaid in the Sam Neill role), not directed by Paul W.S. Anderson this time, just produced by him, and found it enjoyably entertaining, grue filled fun.

  6. The problem with Sam Neill is that if he’s not in a bastardly role (Event Horizon, Invisible Man, The Piano, Omen III), he’s the square, sensible, callow, trampled over figure that the more exciting characters rebel against (My Brilliant Career, Jurassic Park, The Dish, Until The End Of The World).

    It is telling that the only thing that could make him seem like a wild and sexy bohemian artist was casting the even callow-er Hugh Grant in Sirens! (Though it was difficult to register much of anything other than all the various, prolonged scenes of breasts being exposed throughout!)

    My Sam Neill choices would have to be either Death In Brunswick, Possession (where he goes from timid to looney tunes acting styles in record time, though of course Adjani’s shrieking hysteria manages to make everything else in that film seem tame), and the actually charmingly sweet (though initially derivative of Strangers on a Train) Revenger’s Comedies.

  7. Ah that’s it, colinr! Yes, I was happy watching him in Sirens. Like Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days or Jared Harris as Warhol it was as though his lack of animal magnetism in the role of “interesting one” actually produced a more engaging character than a more obviously watchable actor might have brought to the role (although I realise that’s a contradiction in terms).

  8. But you have to see him in Possession! Completely out of control, although the reality is no doubt Zulawski is lulling the strings to make everything happen in that one. Just having had the Zulawski experience may account for his slightly restrained approach to every other role.

    The joy of Dean Spanley is of a muted, orderly man recountign his experiences as a sheep-worrying dog: the clash of manners is delightful.

  9. LOVE Jared Harris. Especially here —

  10. Harris is pretty versatile, which isn’t normally something I’d say of Neill, who falls into the “dependable” camp. But he is capable of surprises, as his insane turn for Zulawski amply demonstrates.

  11. Sam Neill makes a rather splendid Charles II in Restoration, a part which is neither bastardly nor square and sensible.

  12. I never saw Restoration, but I can imagine him being regal. And human at the same time.

  13. I love Harris too, he’s living the dream. I noticed in last night’s Mad Men his head was a good four times larger than the actor opposite him.

  14. Maybe it was what they nowadays call a close-up?

  15. He made an even better Cardinal Woolsey in The Tudors (though my dislike of Restoration has more to do with my dislike of Charles II than of any problems with Sam Neill’s performance!)

  16. Or maybe Harris was simply standing closer to the camera like the skull in the closet in Poltergeist.

  17. That could be it!

    Jarhead Harris.

  18. I loved your review of one of my favourite films. My own, far inferior, summation of the film is here:

    I collect together writings about Jeremy Northam’s work on my blog, and would love to link to, or even reproduce, your review. Do let me know if either of those two things might be possible. Thank you.

  19. By all means copy and include a link!

  20. […] David Cairns, originally posted at Shadowplay and reproduced here by kind […]

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