Last night I came across Dean Spanley, a film I’d not heard of before. I was sold on the description of a quirky, adult fairy-tale with a masterful performance from Peter O’Toole. What I found, though, was a profoundly affecting take on basic human emotions. It may not be a film for everyone – at turns slow and lacking drama – but it’s everything I needed it to be, personally, as it created a very specific impact relating to grief. And it’s a keen example of how powerful art can be.
A Story That’s Really An Emotional Message
Trying to avoid giving too much away, on its surface Dean Spanley is the simple tale of a son trying to connect with his curmudgeonly father, and that son’s attempts to explore spirituality through tricking a respectable Dean into recalling his past life. It’s a curious set up involving rare Imperial booze and shaggy dogs that, up to its moving final act, masks a stronger underlying theme – the acceptance of grief and its impact.
The unassuming, light-hearted and absurdist set up is everything. Some reviews complain about the slow opening, putting the film into the realms of commercial thinking where it doesn’t belong. Such a film could rationally be more entertaining, commercial, successful even – artistically, though, that would sully the message. Its earlier lack of thrust, being light and seemingly without great conflict, is exactly the contrast needed to provide the impact of the emotional reveal.
The message here was something I needed to experience in this way. The overall film (with excellently understated performances) comes together to convey a simple truth with the power to change everything – about looking upon reality and accepting it – but it’s a simple truth that can require a complex set up to really acknowledge. Sometimes it takes experiencing a seemingly light and abstract story to do that. As one story opens the eyes for Peter O’Toole’s character to reflect, in a roundabout way, on another, so in turn this film made me reflect on my mother who passed 19 months ago, with the same emotion. So, I believe, it could do for anyone, with their own personal interpretation of the universal message.
I believe the film has been generally praised, but having seen some of the negative reviews I still feel it worth highlighting. Films of this nature – all art of this nature – cannot be rationally or objectively critiqued against objective values of entertainment and commerciality. Such art works on deeper levels, with personal meaning that a critical eye does not account for. That is to say, it made me blub – and not because of what I saw, but because of what it made me feel.