Based on what can only be described as a shaggy-dog story by the Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany, it has been skilfully expanded by Alan (Rob Roy) Sharp into something more substantial with surprising emotional depth. The New Zealand-based director Toa Fraser handles the material with such sensitivity and subtleness that the bizarre events at the centre of the film seem almost natural.
Set in an English cathedral city in the Edwardian era, the film is narrated by the gentleman-publisher Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam), who long-sufferingly visits his misanthropic elderly father Horatio (Peter OToole) once a week. At a public lecture on reincarnation they meet the mysterious Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and an Australian conveyancer called Wrather (Bryan Brown).
Henslowe befriends the Dean, and during a series of dinners at his country house he encourages him (with the aid of Hungarian Tokay, the emperors dessert wine, procured by the fixer Wrather) to reminisce about his former life as a spaniel. Is the Dean a charlatan or the real thing, or is he just barking mad? Henslowe is intrigued because his father uncharacteristically confided in him about the devastating impact of losing his much-loved dog Wag when a child, and he wonders if this canine connection might provide the key to opening Horatios heart.
Although the doggy business is the tail which wags the story, this is not a film about mans best friend. The flashbacks to the Deans romping past are whimsically droll, but this is a hook on which to hang a gently understated account of the difficulties of coming to terms with the transience of human life. The awkward father/son relationship is central, with all Henslowes efforts at intimacy rebuffed by the distant coldness of Horatio, who has refused to grieve for the killing of his other son in the recent Boer War and the subsequent death of his inconsolable wife. Emotions are repressed but when eventually they do come forth the result is genuinely moving.
The excellent performances give the film a beguiling charm. OToole is wickedly funny in the earlier scenes with his outrageously cynical comments and manipulative behaviour, but later his blank-eyed stare is replaced by touching tearfulness as he makes a Scrooge-like re-birth of the spirit. Northam also impresses by showing the restrained frustration of a decent man trying to reach out to an impossible father. Neill has great fun wrinkling his nose and quietly growling as the second glass of wine takes its effect on inhibition, releasing memories of a very different life in a dog collar, while Brown moves from the down-to-earth scepticism of a wheeler-dealer to open-mouthed fascination.
The parallels between the young Horatio losing his dog and the old Horatio losing his son may seem a bit forced, but on the whole emotional credibility stays intact during this tall tale, which at 100 minutes does not overstrain its leash on our attention. While avoiding schmaltz this is a feelgood movie with sentiment perfectly timed for the Christmas season.