Dean Spanley

Dean Spanley


Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Some people are like dogs. Others, well, they miss out. Dean Spanley is the kind of film that can be fun and eventually very moving, if you let it. Enjoyment all depends on how far you’re willing to be led by its central play, of a dog reincarnated as a man. Chase this whimsical stick and leave the rest to Peter O’Toole - you’re in safe hands.

The ever-dependable Sam Neill plays the Dean Spanley, a reticent, slightly gruff 1930s cleric who is more than partial to the odd tipple of Tokay. When presented with a glass of the sweet Hungarian wine, he soon slips inescapably into reminiscences of his past. The more these indulgences occur, the more it seems he might well be talking about times when he was, not a youth, but a dog. Could Spanley have been a spaniel?

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Fisk (Jeremy Northam) is a polite young man with some means and time on his hands. A routine duty in a dull week is a Thursday visit to his elderly father (Peter O’Toole). Fisk Senior is curmudgeonly old widower with a pedigree of his own, a housekeeper and a pragmatic take on bereavement. His second son was lost in action in the Boer War and his wife died stricken with grief shortly after. His upper lip is both stiff and acerbic.

With such grumpy paternal company to keep Fisk Junior leaps upon a chance encounter with the Dean and asks him for dinner. After a dull start, the Tokay-fuelled Dean begins to more than intrigue Fisk and soon he is hunting Edwardian London for more of the Hungarian memory juice with which to ply him. This leads Fisk to Bryan Brown’s slightly dodgy ‘finder’, the brusque and worldly-wise Wrather. Soon Wrather is equally fascinated by the Dean and it is only a matter of time before yet another dinner is called with Spanley, Wrather, Fisk and his father all in attendance, and the Dean is enticed with more than his regulated quota of re-visiting wine.

Toa Fraser directs this simple tale with an assured hand and recreates enough historical detail to convince of us of the times. That said, although Alan Sharp has adapted Lord Dunsany’s fanciful turn-of-the-century short story with a focused eye, this is more than a mere period piece. The distance of 100 years or so helps with the sheer imaginative stretch that is required at first, but once we’re over that the heart of this story is as poignant and contemporary as ever. Filial and parental responsibility, war, children lost in action, the inability to communicate and the hard, painful numbing grief of it all are as symptomatic of these times as any other. The dress and period differences just make them easier to realise and watch.

The blurb surrounding the film abounds with ‘reincarnation’ and ‘reconciliation’, but I can’t help but feel these are too easy responses to the perhaps unexpectedly weighty themes that Sharp taps into. This is a U-rated family film with more tasty stuffing in it than most of the dressed Christmas turkeys that get released at this time of year. Tokay or no Tokay, if you want it to, Dean Spanley has the power and grace to stay with you.

The quality cast uniformly deliver, especially a stalwart Northam, despite the fact they don’t have huge broads to draw upon. While Sam Neill works understated wonders as Spanley, in a role that could easily have tipped into ludicrousness, there are no fantastically deep mysteries to explore individually here, save for the central axis. Fisk’s father is Sharp’s major addition to the original story and he embodies its sentimental backbone. Enter Mr O’Toole, the undisputed old dog of the piece. As Fisk Senior he again excels, delivering a performance of stature and understated power. In fact, his restraint is downright aged politeness to his co-stars. This is not O’Toole’s greatest performance, but he unequivocally forearms the others off the screen with stately grace and ease. The emotional charge lies with him and he detonates it with an elegant touch.

Reincarnation and reconciliation there may be, but thanks to O’Toole Dean Spanley resonates with warmth, frailty and humanity. There’s Oscar chatter out there, yet again. Does he deserve it for Dean Stanley? Perhaps not, but time's running out and this acting gem deserves it for a singular performance rather than the honorary touch he received several years earlier.

Dean Spanley is both whimsically thin and begging of belief at times, but is held together by Peter O’Toole’s moving and understated turn. Once you let it, the genuine endearment draws you in like a tractor beam

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2008
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A dean recounts tales of his past life... as a dog.
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Director: Toa Fraser

Writer: Lord Dunsany, Alan Sharp

Starring: Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Peter O'Toole, Charlotte Graham, Judy Parfitt, Jenna Pollard, Eva Sayer, Dudley Sutton

Year: 2008

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: New Zealand, UK


London 2008

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