The 2008 UK-NZ co-production, Dean Spanley – is still further cause for celebrating our excellent city library. This film is a delight, a true lettuce, a veritable 'little gem' – 96 mins only, crisp and perfectly delicious, excellent through and through.
Its pedigree, however, is as weird, wonderful and unexpected as can be. The extraordinary plot, unusually witty and engaging, is drawn from Lord Dunsany's novel My Talks With Dean Spanley. Dunsany (1878-1935), was an Anglo-Irish peer, friendly with Yeats, Gogarty and other literati of his time. He wrote in many fields, in verse and prose, and had plays performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. He's remembered these days, if at all, for various anthologised supernatural tales in collections here and there; these uncanny stories may seem rather understated by current tastes, and occasionally a bit whimsical, but they're generally literate and well worth seeking out.
I've not read the Dunsany novel on which the film is based, but the screenwriter is another original, the veteran Alan Sharp. Sharp, a Scottish novelist who moved to the USA in the Sixties, and now lives in New Zealand, worked with distinction in Hollywood on some terrific movies. I recall and recommend Night Moves and Ulzana's Raid – just two of his screenplays, thriller and western respectively, which managed to put various new twists on those declining genres. The quality of the dialogue and narrative is almost guaranteed, therefore, by this unlikely Celtic combination, ancient and modern. And the fine and perfectly judged direction is by a relatively new hand, Toa Fraser, a (thirtyish?) New Zealand guy.
As for the story, it's a very curious narrative, set in Edwardian times, about reincarnation and metempsychosis and father-son relationships and the ways of dogs and man, wine and cricket, life and death! There's no violence, but considerable verbal wit and impeccable visual style in this film: the exceptional, high-quality cast (five principal characters) play it out quite beautifully. Entrancing, hilarious and yet poignant performances by them all…We've never seen Peter O'Toole better, he's quite brilliant here, while Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt and Sam Neill are superb in support. Neill, especially, is both funny and affecting as the eponymous Spanley, an anguished churchman strangely dogged by caninity, who seems ready to sell his soul for some rare Tokay. What an ensemble! The players all seem effortlessly to inhabit that vanished Edwardian world: it's the art that conceals art, thoroughgoing professionalism plus the odd dash of sheer inspiration. This is a ravishing film to look at also, neatly paced and edited what's more, and unlike anything else I've seen in years. "A genuine and surprising pleasure", Time Out called it, and their critic was spot on: Woof woof! sniff this special treat out now!