Director: Toa Fraser
Screenplay: Alan Sharp
Based On A Novel By: Lord Dunsany
Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Alan Harris
Starring: Jeremy Northam, Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill
Country: New Zealand/UK
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 100 min
Released in 2008, Dean Spanley is one of those remarkable films that defies rigid classification and has suffered commercially as a result. Although it was a rare example of a non-children’s film to be given a U certificate denoting that it is suitable for all ages, Dean Spanley‘s chances were perhaps hurt further by this, since a U certificate often drives narrow-minded adult cinemagoers away on the assumption that this will be a trite family film of little interest to them. Anyone who fell into this trap sadly missed out on an original, intelligent, sweet, warm and beautifully written and acted piece of cinema.
But how do you sell Dean Spanley to an audience in the space of a trailer? Its facets are so numerous that it would be difficult to know what elements to play up in the advertising campaign. It’s a comedy for sure but it evolves into a much more dramatic work than its welcoming, brightly-coloured poster might lead you to expect. It has all the hallmarks in theme and style of a family film and yet its first rate screenplay by Alan Sharp (based on a novella by Lord Dunsany) is perhaps too eloquent and dialogue-heavy to hold the attention of most children. The story’s main concept injects the narrative with a healthy dose of fantasy but it is not the variety of whizz-bang wizardry that will enthrall the under-tens. And while children may lose interest quickly because of the lengthy monologues and early 1900s period dialogue, snooty adults may be put off by the absurdist concept of the film and reject all its other considerable achievements on that basis alone.
Dean Spanley, then, is not an easy sell. But it’s a much easier film to enjoy than its apparent elusiveness would suggest. The ideal audience for this film would be adults who are still in touch with their sense of childlike wonder and are not averse to suspending disbelief in the name of a rollicking good yarn! Dean Spanley was perhaps best described in its accompnying publicity as “an adult fairy tale” or, even more accurately, as “a surreal period comedic tale of canine reincarnation exploring the relationships between father and son and master and dog”. If, by this point, your interest is piqued and you want to know more, the likelihood is that you’ll love Dean Spanley as much as I did. If you were irked by the phrases “fairy tale” or “canine reincarnation”, you’ve probably stopped reading by now anyway! Which is a shame, because I think that Dean Spanley is a film of sufficient wit, charm and emotional weight to surprise and win over many a cynic.
The plot goes roughly like this: Early 1990s Britain. Following the death of his younger brother in the Boer War and the subsequent death from grief of his mother, Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam) has fallen into a ritual of visiting his elderly father, Horatio (Peter O’Toole) every Thursday, despite the fact that the two are emotionally estranged and the visits are invariably trying. The eccentric, curmudgeonly Horatio flatly refuses to discuss his son’s death, to which he has adopted an inappropriately flippant attitude, and instead prefers to wax lyrical about his former dog, Wag. Wag, he proclaims, was “one of the seven great dogs” but he ran away one day and never returned. Henslowe takes his reluctant father to a lecture on transmigration of souls where they meet a roguish “conveyancer” called Wrather (Bryan Brown) and local clergyman Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). Intrigued by the Dean’s open-mindedness about reincarnation, Henslowe invites him over for drinks with the promise of a rare vintage of the Dean’s favourite drink, Tokay wine. The wine, Henslowe discovers, leads the Dean into a dreamlike state in which he begins to recount at length his former experiences as a dog. With the help of Wrather, Henslowe sets about obtaining more of the elusive and expensive Tokay in order to learn more about the Dean’s canine past.
New Zealand director Toa Fraser has done a wonderful job of evoking a distinctly British atmosphere and a sense of the period but his major achievement is in keeping a film that is largely set in dining and drawing rooms so enthralling and visually attractive. The images are vibrant and colourful, occasionally punctuated by an unforgettable sight such as an indoor cricket pitch, and the atmosphere that Fraser creates combines that of a comforting Sunday afternoon entertainment with a sense of the otherworldly. Aiding Fraser in his strong direction is Alan Sharp’s terrific screenplay, full of carefully deliniated characters and a seemingly endless supply of witty lines. It also builds, in the grand tradition, towards a gripping and heartwarming final act that will surely break down the defences of anyone who has written off the plot as poppycock.
As befits a film of such divergent stylistic qualities, Dean Spanley‘s cast are a varied set of actors whose unique styles marry together into something beautiful. Jeremy Northam is a strong anchoring presence as the story’s straight-man and facilitator and graciously allows his co-stars to dominate their respective scenes. Not that Peter O’Toole gives him any choice! O’Toole snatches scenes all over the film with his scenery-chewing performance. Boorish, rude and loudly opinionated, O’Toole’s character gives him the chance to have enormous fun while also hoarding most of the best lines. Despite the broadness of the performance, O’Toole’s interpretation of the character is entirely fitting. This is a man who hides his true emotions beneath an act, so boisterous theatricality was surely the right way to go. In the climactic scenes we discover the hidden depths of the character and O’Toole’s acting, by now reduced mostly to facial expressions, is phenomenal. At the eleventh hour, he gives us a glimpse of the fully-rounded character he has secretly been portraying all along.
The contrasting central performances of Northam and O’Toole find further contrast in the most original and best turn in the film. Sam Neill’s performance as the titular Dean is a remarkable and remarkably strange piece of work which gives him the chance to act in the most unusual way. As Spanley, Neill is stuffy and slightly brusque but once he tastes the Tokay wine he is transformed. A good many actors and directors would have taken Spanley’s regression to his dog days in a very silly direction, incorporating panting, scratching, growling and the like. But Neill does nothing of the sort. His occasional overt doggy gestures are limited to little sniffs here and there, while he skillfully builds an entirely believable dog character through reminiscent monologues and the subtle facial expressions and vocal interpretations of how an English-speaking dog might actually sound. The meat of Neill’s role is his doggy speeches and this allows him to tap into a rich storytelling tradition. His performance here is akin to the best celebrity readings on legendary children’s literature show Jackanory, full of warmth, wisdom and nostalgia. Neill’s rich, comforting voice is the defining sound of the whole film but he maintains an edginess befitting a man who has been lulled into a false sense of security and may come out of his trance at any moment.
The small main cast is rounded out by Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt. Brown, a popular Australian star of the 80s and often spoken of in the same breath as Paul Hogan, is an actor of little range but he has been carefully chosen for this roguish role of a dodgy dealer which plays to his strengths. He’s a bright, enjoyable presence and gives the film yet another distinct voice to play off the mannered English characters. Parfitt gives an excellent supporting performance as housekeeper Mrs. Brimley, an old-fashioned, tentaively affectionate woman with an indomintable spirit. The loss of her husband, whom she occasionally talks to as if he were still there, is a nicely judged counterpoint to the central losses that form much of the dramatic narrative.
Dean Spanley is a unique, captivating piece of filmmaking which utilises both the traditional characteristics of old-fashioned storytelling and the modern penchant for the quirky and unusual. Although its mix of styles make it a tough film to promote, those who are lucky enough to see it in its entirety will discover a deftly executed work in which seemingly incompatible elements blend seamlessly into a rich, entertaining whole. Dean Spanley is an invitation to set aside our cynicism and embrace the child, and the dog, in all of us.