Saturday, 3 January 2009


20/12/08, Odeon Covent Garden

Slow start, rather laboured, but developed into a film that was charming, beautifully shot and acted and downright moving. I cried. And so did D.

It was a shaggy dog story (literally) and really very slight, but redeemed by a witty script and performances, especially Peter O’Toole, who can convey a multitude of emotions and thoughts with his eyes alone, but also by Jeremy Northam (nicely understated as his son) and Sam Neil. The execution overcame the rather dated setting (c 1900) and extraordinary premise: a series of conversations between three middle-aged men and the elderly father of one in which the Sam Neil character, a very proper ecclesiastical Dean, recalls (under the influence of exceedingly rare Imperial Tokay) his previous life as a dog . It must have looked frankly unpromising on the page.
The O’Toole character is domineering and bullying, behaves monstrously towards his son, and obstinately refuses to mourn his other son, killed in the Boer War. This emotional aridity goes back much further, though. He is finally enabled to grieve (becoming a much nicer person in the process) by the realisation than the Dean (Spanley – geddit?) was O’Toole’s beloved dog Wag in an earlier incarnation – Wag having disappeared mysteriously, never to return, when the child O’Toole was sent away to school. O’Toole’s performance was frankly uncanny – profoundly, almost ludicrously hammy and yet convincing.

There were nice if rather sentimental sequences, shot in New Zealand, of the animals. There were some entertaining scenes with the local Nawab, who has taken over the local mansion and installed an indoor cricket pitch in the ballroom; there was a poignant scene in the old man’s club, with a club servant whose son had also died in the Boer War (and was obviously hoping – in vain – for some sympathy from the O’Toole character); and there were some less successful scenes with Judy Parfitt as the old man’s no-nonsense housekeeper.

Now and again O’Toole’s character reminded me of my own Old Man, a little lost sometimes, given to repeating favourite phrases and insights.

Question: Why was it made by the New Zealand Film Commission, when it was set in some unnamed East Anglian city and shot largely in Wisbech?

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