There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.
Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any reference to its capacity for “whimsy” (it is whimsical, but not to the exclusion of all else). Toa Fraser has made a rare picture, adapted from an outstanding Alan Sharp screenplay, one that consummately blends the tragic with the idiosyncratic, the eccentric, and the hilarious. When I say Dean Spanley is a genuinely heart-warming tale, I mean that it succeeds without a trace of the cynicism and sentimentalising that commonly reduces such fare.
My understanding is that Dunsany, a prolific fantasy author given to knocking out an entire work in one nocturnal outpouring without any subsequent editing, originally conceived My Talks with Dean Spanley as a satire on reincarnation. The film itself is less engaged with finding food for mockery of spiritual belief (albeit such views are expressed by characters during the opening stages) than it is allowing that belief – or not even that, direct experience rather than the belief itself – can work a healing effect irrespective of its legitimacy. So it is that Sharp and Fraser manage to be both amused by the apparent absurdity of this particular take on transmigration while affording it the benefit of the doubt.
One of the repeated concerns in respect of the production was that “whimsy could overpower the heart of the film” and it is a tribute to Fraser and his performers that it does not. But it is also a tribute to Sharp. Peter O’Toole was surprised Dean Spanley was made, as it was “too clever, too funny, too intelligent and too good” to get the backing that would elicit a green light. Every other line is memorable, of the order that one is sure one has heard such gems before somewhere else (“I don’t believe in enough things already”, “I wouldn’t call it a lie. More like, a truth deferred”).
Sharp was responsible for the screenplays for (amongst others) Ulzanna’s Raid, Night Moves, The Osterman Weekend and Rob Roy, but this should surely go down as the best picture with which he has been involved. Sharp had devised Dean Spanley for television, but was encouraged to expand it as film script. The process led to the addition, crucial in terms of the picture’s emotional resonance, of Horatio Fisk (Fisk Senior; Peter O’ Toole). Fisk Senior comes to recognise his connection with the Dean’s dog days recalled (his childhood dog Wag is revealed as the self-same pooch that will one day be reborn as Spanley) and experiences the release that comes from a man unable to grieve for his fallen son enabled to get in touch with that place.
As others have noted, this plot strand is so essential, it is difficult to imagine the picture working without it. In the context of the story, reincarnation between species is a simple fact, but the importance is less down to minutiae than the broader theme of connection and continuance. Fisk Senior has lost all that he holds dear (his son, his wife, and, as is so common, the vessel through which positive feelings are easier expressed than towards fellow humans, his dog). So much so that his relationship with his surviving son Henslowe (Fisk Junior; Jeremy Northam) is perfunctory and distanced. Younger son Harrington Fisk died during the Boer War, and his mother passed from grief not long after. Set in 1904, Dean Spanley consciously precedes the burgeoning spiritualist movement that arose in the aftermath of World War I, whereby many undergoing loss sought comfort and commune with the departed. Best known of these was Arthur Conan Doyle, who lost his wife in the early ears of the century, a son during the War and his brother and four other close family members in the near-aftermath.
Fisk Senior is no longer fully aware of, or engaged with, the world around him, mistakenly assuming that a war is currently being waged and forgetful of the outcome of his son’s conflict (“I believe we lost more slowly than the other side” Henslowe drily replies to the question of whether the British won the Boer War).
The picture nurses the suspicion of Dunsany, and those who believe any attempt to contact the afterlife is a scam, only to yield to the simple, unimpeachable truth of emotional fruits. It scarcely matters if reincarnation is a fact; Horatio Fisk experiences a rekindling of his engagement with life, an ability to grieve, and reconnection with his son as a result. During the early passages, the flicker of recognition between the Dean and Wrather (Bryan Brown) might be mistaken for the pact between confidence tricksters, when it is really, more fancifully and innocently, the slow stirring realisation of two old dogs reunited (Wrather is the mongrel who led Wag on his fateful excursion).
Fisk Junior: I’ve heard it said that one encounter is a happenstance. Two, a coincidence. And three, a significance.
Sharp takes care to fill his screenplay with pointers that give support to a universal order that defies Horatio’s severe philosophy. As his son overtly references, there may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Fisk Senior’s stoical perception (“If something goes to the trouble of happening, it may be considered inevitable”). Synchronicity is embraced as an inexorable force that rebalances the soul across the barriers of time and space. What is it that pulls Fisk Junior towards the lecture on transmigration of the soul? We never quite learn, as his is not a yearning; it is more of an idle fascination (summed up neatly by his final lines; “As for the question of reincarnation, I resolved to wait and see”) and a means to find anything to occupy his time with his unresponsive father.
Christianity is, if not maligned, lightly dismissed as limiting. It is speculated that the Dean attends the lecture because he “sees the error of his Christian ways”, and the Dean’s view is held as the thematic summation of the picture as a whole; “Only the closed mind is certain, sir”. This holds true not just of chosen faith, but also of the routine of existence and the calcification of one’s heart, whereby one hardens and insulates oneself against others or slights from without.
However, while the Dean notes, “The beliefs of others are always of interest”, the the lecture apparently holds no greater insight for those attending than the average uninspired church sermon. Fisk Junior refers to it as an “unilluminating fifty minutes” making an unfavourable comparison to parliamentary debate. Fisk Senior has nodded off (“Where am I?!” is his amusing, startled cry upon awaking). So the message appears to be that high-faluting talk is unpersuasive; only personal experience reveals or provokes profound truths.
Swami: It is generally supposed that the animal soul must be of a different and by inference inferior nature to the human soul.
Art Malki’s Swami Nala Prash is asked by a couple of cat lovers regarding the souls of pets, and he addresses the debate between advocates of reincarnation regarding the potential for the transference of the soul between species. His words stop short of embracing the Dean’s previous existence, but they offer greater promise to the dog owner (doubtless the swami personally favours the hound, and it so colours his offered wisdom) than those who hold particular affection for felines. He advises, “A dog amplifies” while “A cat diminishes man’s estimation of himself”. All animal species may have awareness of the godhead but a dog’s singular relationship with man makes him unique. Horatio’s response (“Poppycock!”) is also influenced by personal experience, having received the ultimate snub (desertion) by his most favoured of pets (“One of the seven great dogs”, indeed).
Wrather: What’s a dean doing at a sermon on reincarnation, that’s what I’d like to know?
The Dean himself is sanguine over objections to the reincarnation hypothesis (namely, if the soul survives then why don’t the deceased get in touch); he is quite prepared to consider that this is simply because, under the swami’s terms, they are “all too busy being whoever they’ve become”. In contrast, cricketer Nawab (Ramon Tikaram) has no interest in reincarnation and didn’t enjoy the Tokay because he subsequently dreamt he was a monkey.
The shagginess of Sharp’s screenplay encourages us, like the Dean, not to reject any philosophy just because it may seem unlikely or far-fetched. As soon as the rigour of a defined view takes hold, we diminish our ability to perceive the world. Henslowe considers the Dean’s presence “Commendable open-mindedness”. He later takes pains to distinguish Spanley’s behaviour from that of your common-or-garden charlatan (“It’s not a séance. More like the parting of the veil between… one life and another”).
The other noteworthy aspect of the lecture (apart from an upbeat, fun turn from the oft-wooden Tikaram) is the introduction of the theme of transferred ideas and phrase, as if they are snatched up into the ether and telepathically communicated to (inter-) connected parties. These come as signs on the way that cannot be ignored by those with ears for them, just as Henslowe’s repeated crossing of paths with the Dean demands attention.
Early in the proceedings, Fisk Senior comments of his son’s suggestion that they find diversions to fill their day together, “That’s all that’s left, you know, before stepping out of the anteroom of eternity”. During the lecture, the swami repeats the phrase pertaining to the anteroom of eternity, attracting Horatio’s indignation and concern. While the Dean later dismisses Fisk Senior’s assertion that it is odd (“I rather thought it common usage”), and Horatio himself has no time for “mumble jumble” the narrative insists that something else is going on (it is notable that even as soon as leaving the audience with the swami, Horatio recants his avoidance of his club, justifying a visit by referencing “the eternal now“).
Dean Spanley: It has often occurred to me that to pull a dog away from a lamppost is akin to seizing a scholar in the British Museum by the scruff of his neck and dragging him away from his studies.
We hear this with the recollection of the Dean/Wag’s paean to lampposts. A little later on Wrather makes a similar analogy, apparently innocently. Similarly, when the Dean voices his strangest feeling that he has met Wrather before (whom he circles and sniffs when they first meet formally), perhaps from a previous life, he settles on his possibly being colonial (“One often feels one’s met them before”). At the end of the film, Dean repeats his supposition of familiarity to Wrather, who responds “One often feels that about colonials, Dean”. This sense of the Dean’s interrelationships beyond the bounds of the immediate physical conversation spreads through the characters accordingly. Both he and Fisk Senior voice grave concerns over the future of the “infernal combustion engine”.
Sharp writes the theme of loss beautifully, and Fraser translates it with sensitivity and deference. Perhaps because of the eminence of the stiff upper lip, and certainly because of the humour that support the piece it at every turn, a fine balance is maintained. The picture never indulges bereavement (either canine or human) but neither is it buried beneath light-heartedness and dreaded whimsy. When Fisk Senior protests to his son “It wasn’t my loss. He’s the one who got killed… What’s our loss, compared to your brother’s?” there’s an earnest conviction from O’Toole’s (it’s a quite wonderful performance) that almost persuades, if not that Horatio “doesn’t hold with grieving”.
Direct approaches cannot pierce Fisk Senior’s armour (“I have nothing left to say on the subject. Please do not mention it again”) and Henslowe does not embark on his courtship of Dean Spanley out of any express intent to heal his father; it is only some time into the Tokay evenings (which, Horatio notes, supplant his rigidly ordained Thursday dates with son) that web that links them becomes lucid. To begin with, Fisk Junior isn’t quite sure what he is following. But a part of him is, like the Dean, open to new ideas; just without, until now, any particular fascination exerted by them. The narrative parallels between the Dean’s dog days and the young Horatio’s loss of a hound are faint at first. We are told of Wag, a Welsh Spaniel (“He went away one day and never came back”) and the revelation that Dean Spanley is known as WAG (“Walter Arthur Graham”) seems too perfect to be credible.
So the dinner attended by Henslowe, Horatio and Wrather (there have been incremental increases in guests at the Tokay evenings, first with Wrather, the procurer of the Tokay, added to the mix) is not convened as an intervention or breakthrough. Fisk Junior is merely curious to see if his suspicions are correct, yet the Dean’s presence exerts such a profound change in Fisk Senior that it elicits the sincerest of responses (“You were all that can be hoped for in a guest” Horatio informs the concerned Dean).
The roots of Fisk Senior’s withdrawal following the death of his lie in the feelings of loss and abandonment that followed Wag’s abrupt departure. One might argue this is a bit too neat, as is his rejection of childhood (he amusingly trips up a rampaging child and responds to the accusatory son of his own boyhood that he was “damn glad when it was over”).
Yet the understanding that Wag did not leave his master of his own volition; rather his life, like that of Fisk Senior’s other son, was cut short abruptly, forms a bridge that invites healing and release. Further still, the connection this volunteers (“If you will excuse me. I am put in memory of my son, Farrington”) is soothed by the knowledge (and visual juxtaposing) that Wag did not die in pain (“I am, most glad to hear it”). It’s a sublime sequence, played across O’Toole’s rapt face as Fraser cuts to his reaction to the Dean’s encompassing tale, and supported by an affecting score from Don McGlashan.
There is a comfort and release to Fisk Senior’s realisation that “One moment you are running along, the next you are no more” and it instils in him an ability to behave spontaneously once more. Where before he ate the same hotpot hundreds of times, driving his devoted housekeeper to distraction, now his appetite is expansive and inquisitive. His son may visit at any time, and Horatio buys a dog to remind him of the long-buried joys of his youth and that he has living yet to do. As his housekeeper (who, endearingly regularly talks to her dead husband) says, “Better late than never”.
Sharp’s (and Dunsany’s) insight into the mind of the canine is quite captivating. The quirks of a different means of perception have a buoyant veneer of authenticity. How Wag knew when his master was returning, not through any detailed understanding of time but because “Before he was not coming back and then he was. That was the difference”. How he could achieve the effect of drunkenness through running around in circles (“most exhilarating”) and the distrust he nurses for the Moon, which is “never the same two nights in a row”, which he expresses through barking at it. And, “When I barked, I was enormous”.
Then there is Wag’s account of the importance of the sense of smell, and how his mongrel friend would leave “messages” for him. The Dean warms to his theme of the olfactory powers of the canine, which is why the aroma of Tokay is “of more significance than the flavour”. There’s a lyricism to the dog experience, in particular Wag’s passing (“Perhaps it was a dream and I awakened from it”). But the world to which we are introduced is also a delightful and funny one.
Sam Neill is a fine actor, but, if he isn’t cast to his strengths, he can be somewhat non-descript. Witness his most famous role as Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park (and III), where the classic heroic lead escapes him. Here he is a delight, both as the considered but distracted Dean and his canine alter ego. He captures the spirit of daring, adventure, and pride of a pooch, the devotion to a master, and the mysteries of man seen through the eyes of a dog.
O’ Toole is also quite superb, delivering a profoundly moving performance, and often a very funny one as a forthright man uninterested in social pleasantries. He considers the Dean to be a rum chap, “Dabbling in Eastern religion, drinking that Hungarian treacle” and most subjects are found lacking (“Damn foolish game, cricket, if you ask me. Too many rules”). People likewise come up short (when Wrather offers that it has been a great pleasure, he responds, “You’re easily pleased, is all I can say”.
But everyone in Dean Spanley is first rate. Bryan Brown is earthy and provocative as middleman Wrather, stirring the pot just as Wag’s best pal did all those years ago. Judy Parfitt as the devoted housekeeper, and Jeremy Northam prizes the chance to play sympathetic, wry, and incisive. Like Neill, he rarely gets parts that offer him the chance to show off his abilities.
Dean Spanley is the standout picture of O’Toole’s last decade, but it’s also a standout picture of the last decade of British (and New Zealand; it was a co-production) cinema. This is the kind of rich, lively, witty, and intelligent “heritage” picture we should see more of, rather than yet another costume drama retelling another beloved classic yet again. Blessed with an outstanding script, peerless performances, and sensitive direction, Dean Spanley is playful, funny, sad, moving, and whimsical.