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A life less ordinary

Peter O'Toole soldiers on, with a sublime and understated tale

<strong>Dean Spanley (U)</stro

Having failed to win the Congratulations For Not Dying Yet award for Venus at the 2007 Oscars, Peter O'Toole soldiers on. In Dean Spanley, set in an early-20th-century England of fog and frost, the 76-year-old actor wears a look of livid, bug-eyed amusement, and his silver locks seem metallic against his puce skin. Each time he expresses another curdled sentiment (such as: "A woman with a vote is like a cow with a gun - contrary to nature"), he appears surprised by what just came out of his mouth, as if he were a conduit for someone else's invective. He plays Horatio Fisk, who divides what time he has left in "the anteroom of eternity" between tormenting his son Henslowe (Jeremy Northam) and pretending to be unmoved by the death of his other son in the Boer War.

Enter Dean Spanley. As a friend pointed out, the name suggests a wheeler-dealer in a Guy Ritchie film, but the dean (Sam Neill), whom Henslowe meets after they both attend a lecture entitled "The Transmigration of Souls", is a quiet, disarming fellow. His poison, Henslowe discovers, is Imperial Tokay, an obscure Hungarian wine that has an unusual effect. The second it meets the dean's lips, he wanders off down memory lane, a circuitous path that leads, in his case, all the way back to a previous existence - the precise nature of which I shall keep under my hat to preserve the story's magic.

The picture is essentially a triangle of dotty but deeply felt performances. Neill is the revelation. He has always been so fine that you rarely notice him, which may be one of those compliments scarcely worth the giving. There's no showboating in his Dean Spanley - he plays him in small, ingenuous strokes. He evokes complex comic effects, not to mention a stirring account of the dean's past life, out of a twitch of the eyebrows or a tilt of the head. Henslowe mentions falling into "that sublime state where the dream dreams you", and that description could serve as an appraisal of Neill's performance, which rolls along miraculously - much like the film, borne aloft by Don McGlashan's attentive score.

Alan Sharp's script refrains from opening out too much the action of Baron Dunsany's novel My Talks With Dean Spanley. Sharp himself is rather like a lavishly coloured bird that doesn't come out of hiding very often, but makes it worth the wait when he does. Incredibly, his other screenplays include The Hired Hand, Ulzana's Raid, Night Moves and Rob Roy - easily enough to warrant his used typewriter ribbons being acquired by a museum for a sizeable sum.

Dean Spanley is small-scale; it could be enjoyed on television one Boxing Day afternoon without much loss of impact. But its modest form enables its ideas to take flight: it doesn't advertise its profundity. Toa Fraser's direction permits only the odd flourish - a tracking shot, say, that ends with a sideways swerve, like the introduction of an unorthodox thought into polite conversation. Some of the images, including a shot of sheep vaulting over a hill, have a lyrical weightlessness. So, too, do the scenes inside one subtly symbolic location - a mansion owned by the Nawab of Ranjiput (Ramon Tikaram), which boasts a cricket pitch in the ballroom where sitar music is punctuated by the occasional smash from a misjudged googly. When the film was over, I felt a pain. My face was aching from smiling.

Lemon Tree is gentle, too - but slick. It concerns a Palestinian widow (Hiam Abbass) whose lemon harvest is threatened when the Israeli defence minister makes his home on the side across from her grove. The security services decide that the grove, in which terrorists could hide among the jaunty yellow flowers, has to go. As the case becomes an international sensation, the film starts to feel contrived. Every irony, every echo of one side of the dispute in the other, is pressed home. I mention the picture only to draw your attention to Abbass, who gives her second great performance of the year (she was the detainee's mother in The Visitor). But for her crushing understatement and Ingrid Bergman-like poise, Lemon Tree could be taken for the first in a series called Understanding the Arab-Israeli Problem Through Metaphor.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech