Film review: Dean Spanley (2008), directed by Toa Fraser
Set at some time in the past, when the motor car and electric light were newfangled ideas, we meet Mr Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) who meets with his elderly father every Thursday. Mr Fisk Senior (Peter O’Toole) is a grumpy old man who likes a strict schedule and will only allow the poor housekeeper (Judy Parfitt) to make him a hotpot for his tea.
One day, after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper, the Fisks go to see a talk on “the transmigration of souls” by Swami Nala Prash (Art Malik). Junior is very taken by the idea of reincarnation, but his father sees it as nothing but “poppycock!” At the talk, they meet a conveyancer, the “colonial” (read: Australian) Mr Wrather (Bryan Brown, always a treat), and the dean of the local church, Mr Spanley (Sam Neill). Dean Spanley strikes Junior as a particularly interesting character with a surprising wealth of knowledge on the subject of souls and the transmigration thereof.
The Fisks then bump into the Dean a second time, at their local gentleman’s club, and find out he’s particularly fond of a Hungarian wine called Tokay. After bumping into the man a third time, Junior decides to invite the Dean for dinner one night, luring him there with the promise of a very rare bottle of Tokay. And thus begins Mr Fisk’s talks with Dean Spanley, who, under the spell of the golden liquid, starts recalling a previous life … as a dog.
Dean Spanley is an independent film based on Lord Dunsany’s My Talks with Dean Spanley, a 1936 novella set in Edwardian England. As a film it’s quiet and strangely moving. The relationship between father and son, which has been strained ever since the other son got killed in the Boer War and broke the mother’s heart, develops and becomes heartwarming.
Mr Fisk Senior is a brilliant character and O’Toole is excellent in the role. The man is a complete bastard to everyone, and yet they sort of grin and bear it, because he’s old. Being old is no excuse to be a rude, grumpy git if you ask me, and you’d hate him if you had to put up with him in real life – but as a fictional character, he’s a hoot.
Sam Neill was made for the part of the Dean. Undoubtedly a dog person in real life (although I do believe the love of dogs extends to other animals too, bless him), he knows how dogs think, and his tasting of wine should be second to none, considering he is the proprietor of a highly acclaimed vineyard in New Zealand. If memory serves me right, he’s not that keen on Tokay in real life, however, but he does know how to give wine a proper tasting.
Dean Spanley feels a little like a play, and indeed, there aren’t a lot of characters in it. The ones that are there, though, give solid performances and are all absolutely wonderful. A low-key and not that widely publicised film, Dean Spanley is my pick for Christmas this year. When you’re sick of shopping in the after Christmas sales and fed up eating leftovers from Christmas dinner, this is a film to put on and put your feet up to, with a hot drink to keep you warm. It’s nicely unassuming, and it’s both quirky and cathartic.
4.7 out of 5 hotpots.