The surprise about the popularity of Lord Dunsanys work is that he has never been adapted to the screen before with the exception of the classic It Happened Tomorrow (1944) about a newspaper that printed tomorrows headlines, which was purportedly based on a play that was taken from one of Dunsanys stories. Dean Spanley comes from Lord Dunsanys novel My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936). Dunsany was apparently a dog lover and wrote a number of stories about dogs.
Dean Spanley is a New Zealand-British co-production from director Toa Fraser. Toa Fraser is a New Zealander born of Anglo-Fijian parents who had success as a playwright, most notably with No 2 (1999), loosely based on his own family experiences, and was then granted the opportunity to write/direct the film adaptation of his play with No 2 (2006). Fraser also wrote the script for Vincent Wards Maori Wars epic River Queen (2005) and Dean Spanley is his second film as director. He subsequently went onto direct a film of the ballet Giselle (2013), the Maori Wars action film The Dead Lands (2014) and 6 Days (2017) about the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The script comes from Alan Sharp, a Scottish writer who has a number of interesting credits, including the scripts for Ulzanas Raid (1972), Damnation Alley (1977), The Osterman Weekend (1983), Rob Roy (1995) and The Lathe of Heaven (2002).
The New Zealand Film Commission has taken some flack in recent years from people like Peter Jackson for their staid ways and unwillingness to take chances. As though to prove him wrong, they funded Dean Spanley a film about a dog reincarnated as a man which surely must be the most eccentric offering to ever cross their boardroom table. Just trying to imagine the raised eyebrows Toa Fraser and Alan Sharp must have gotten as they pitched the project around the various production companies listed on the credits leaves you with an uncontrollable case of the giggles.
Dean Spanley is essentially another of Lord Dunsanys club stories. The entire film takes place as a series of after-dinner shaggy dog stories (couldnt resist the pun) one where a man becomes a little drunk and relays details of his past life as a dog. Imagine some combination of My Dinner with Andre (1981) an entire film that takes place as a series of philosophical discussions and stories of world travels over a single dinner conversation and Oh Heavenly Dog (1980) but where the reincarnation runs in reverse (dog to man rather than vice versa). A more serious minded comparison might be the underrated Fluke (1995). Of course, Dean Spanley could not be more removed from a film like Oh Heavenly Dog. Where Oh Heavenly Dog came in the tradition of the light fantasy films of the 1940s and Disney in the 1960s/70s, Dean Spanley is an Edwardian drawing room drama. Its company is more works like Brideshead Revisited (1981) or A Room with a View (1985) and the collected works of Merchant Ivory.
The surprise about a film that takes such an eccentric premise seriously and is mostly told as a potentially not very dramatically exciting series of after-dinner conversations, is that the results are delightful. Certainly, Dean Spanley is not a film that is ever going to wake the box-office up but it is enormously appealing. Alan Sharps writing, his wielding of the formal dialogue of the period and the sharp observations and dry wit that emerges through the characters is simply superlative. Sam Neills monologues about his life as a dog are captivatingly written, none more so than the final dinner where he movingly relays the adventure that led to his death. Underneath the dinner table discussions lies a touchingly told story about how a son manages to connect with his aging father who is set in his ways and has suppressed many of his feelings. The end scenes with Peter OToole playing with his new dog in the snow are charming.
The film is serviced by an excellent cast. Jeremy Northam plays a dull part appropriately, while both Sam Neill and Bryan Brown have a ball in their respective roles. Even the underrated Judy Parfitt fills a throwaway part with unexpected depths. Although the one who runs rings around the youth surrounding him is the great Peter OToole. At age 76 and looking decidedly infirm as he plays most of the part from a wheelchair, OToole still steals the show with a regally commanding irascibility.