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New Zealand/United Kingdom 2009
Directed by
Toa Fraser
100 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Dean Spanley

Synopsis: In 1930s London, Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam) attends a lecture about reincarnation with his father (Peter O’Toole). Also in attendance is Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) with whom Fisk strikes up a friendship. With the assistance of Wrather (Bryan Brown) who knows how to procure some bottles of Imperial Tokay, the Dean’s favourite tipple, Fisk begins to draw out the Dean’s unusual first-hand experience of the transmigration of souls.

Dean Spanley is a wonderful film based on Irish author Lord Dunsany's 1936 short novel, 'My Talks With Dean Spanley', skilfully adapted by Alan Sharp and brought to life by a first-rate cast. Although distinguished by its careful attention to period detail, with a visually beguiling production design, all ivy-covered Georgian exteriors and cosily-peaceful old-world interiors, it is not of the classical high-style upstairs-downstairs costume drama kind of film but rather is an irresistibly eccentric slice of whimsy that perfectly embodies the oblique, decorous English sensibility. For whilst at the heart of Dean Spanley lies a tragedy, much of the film is spent in amusingly showing how painful emotions are concealed beneath socially-sanctioned bluff and propriety, or to put it another way, the stiff upper lip.

The original text is based on a felicitous concept that marries the “unspeakable” in the sense of what it is not proper to speak in polite society and the “unspeakable” in what cannot be articulated by rational thought. So it twins the concealed personal grief felt at the physical loss of a loved one with the popular speculation that there is more to life than meets the eye. As we saw from Coppola’s disastrous Youth Without Youth last year this is an area fraught with danger for the unqualified but the marvel here is that it is tackled, not with grim seriousness, but in the form of a dean who, under the influence of Hungarian Imperial Tokay wine, releases his inner dog. Yes it’s a barking mad idea but it is done so deftly as to be irresistible.

Whilst the quality of the writing is first class, it is the performances that really carry the film home. I have never understood the remarkable success of Sam Neill, who seems to vary little, film to film, from playing blandly handsome characters (perhaps bar Death In Brunswick,1991) but here he is extraordinarily good. The Dean’s intoxicated reveries of his life as a dog are priceless, with the climactic episode of his story a flawlessly captivating turn by Neill. A cadaverous Peter O’Toole has much fun as the curmudgeonly old gent, the watery-eyed actor exaggerating his public school diction to the point where words begin to break under the strain of his enunciation. Jeremy Northam is perfect as the dutiful, put-upon son whilst a seemingly oddly-cast Bryan Brown as the “Colonial conveyancer", Wrather, brings a rollicking irreverence to the proceedings, the significance of which becomes apparent towards the end of the film. Judy Parfitt has a small but effective role as Fisk Senior’s housekeeper and Dudley Sutton makes a welcome appearance as Mariott the butler at the former’s club.

Dean Spanley is superbly crafted, marvellously written and faultlessly performed film, enhanced by a delicate original score by New Zealander Don McGlashan (although shot at various locations in the UK it is largely a New Zealand production). I can understand that not everybody will be swept away by its modest charms but for those who appreciate the small things of life it is a film to savour.




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