Dean Spanley (2008) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Each Thursday, a man approaching middle age calls upon his father, aged, caustic, nihilistic, and emotionally distant, perhaps from the loss of a son in the Boer War and his wife soon after. On this day, the son suggests they attend a visiting guru's lecture on the transmigration of souls. There they chat with a vicar and a soldier of fortune; dinner follows. Over glasses of Hungarian Tokay, the vicar, Dean Spanley, tells a story of friendship, freedom, and reincarnation. In what earthly way could this tale connect father and son?

  • Set in Edwardian England where upper lips are always stiff and men from the Colonies are not entirely to be trusted, Fisk Senior has little time or affection for his son, but when the pair visit an eccentric Indian, they start a strange journey that eventually allows the old man to find his heart.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Horatio Fisk (Peter O'Toole) is an elderly and cynical curmudgeon, with little zest for life and none at all for new experiences. His son Henslowe (Jeremy Northam), whom he calls young Fisk, always visits him on Thursdays; dinner is invariably hotpot and he refuses to allow his housekeeper, Mrs Brimley (Judy Parfitt), to vary the menu. Horatio has largely withdrawn from the world since the death of his elder son in the Boer War, and the death of his broken-hearted wife which followed soon afterwards. He refuses to mourn his dead son, and all attempts by Henslowe to comfort him are rebuffed.

    Henslowe persuades his father one Thursday to go to a talk on transmigration of souls, or reincarnation, to be given by Swami Nala Prash (Art Malik) at the nearby palatial home of the cricket-mad Nawab of Ranjiput (Ramon Tikaram). There in the audience they find clergyman Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), an acquaintance of Horatio who introduces him to Henslowe. They also meet and converse with an Australian wheeler-dealer named Wrather (Bryan Brown), and they remark on the incongruity of a Church of England dean attending a talk on reincarnation. When they leave, Wrather gives Henslowe his card; it describes him as a Conveyancer.

    Unusually, Horatio suggests to Henslowe after the talk that they go to his club for a drink. There they again run into Dean Spanley, who is also a member, drinking alone. He is drinking Tokay and, although it is a fine wine, he remarks that it is not an Imperial. Horatio and Henslowe leave Spanley to his thoughts and his Tokay, and take a separate table. Horatio orders brandy and soda. Henslowe asks for Tokay, but the ancient steward Marriot (Dudley Sutton) explains that there is none; Dean Spanley's is his private stock that the club keeps for him.

    Later the same day, Henslowe walks through a churchyard or perhaps a square, and comes upon Dean Spanley standing on a bench and seemingly very interested in a cat stuck in an overhanging tree. Henslowe becomes intrigued by something in Spanley's manner and invites him to dinner. Spanley initially declines but Henslowe tempts him by saying he has a bottle of Tokay and, as Spanley seems about to demur again, adds that it is an Imperial. Spanley accepts the invitation.

    With only a week in which to procure the bottle of Imperial Tokay that he has promised Spanley, Henslowe quickly learns that it is very hard to come by; traditionally, it may only be uncorked with the permission of a member of the Habsburg royal family. He decides to contact Wrather who dusts off a bottle lurking in a shed and offers it to Henslowe for the enormous sum of five guineas. It is a 91, not the 89 that Henslowe has promised Spanley, but it will have to do.

    The dinners become a weekly fixture. When the Dean sniffs deeply at the Tokay and sips it his nose twitches, he enters a sort of trance, and he seems to assume the character of a dog whose body he has, by implication, inhabited in a previous life. Bit by bit, over successive dinners, more detail emerges of his life as a dog. With Wrather's help more Imperial Tokay is obtained from the Nawab. Henslowe has by now disclosed to Wrather the reason for his continuing fascination with the Dean, and Wrather extracts an invitation for himself so that he can hear Spanley at first hand.

    In the course of the story, we have learned that old Horatio, as a boy, had a dog named Wag. One day, the dog simply ran away, and was never seen again. Subsequently it emerges that Dean Spanley once had the nickname Wag, W-A-G being the initials of his first names. Horatio's beloved dog had been a Welsh spaniel; the Dean has also revealed, while in his dog persona, that he was a spaniel.

    Henslowe tries to persuade his father to come to one of his dinners with the Dean. His father agrees, provided that the dinner can be at his own house, and so it is arranged. Wrather comes too.

    With the assistance of two bottles of Imperial Tokay, Dean Spanley inhabiting his dog persona reveals that his master called him Wag. He describes in detail, and the film shows, the day he ran away with his friend, a much more streetwise dog, perhaps a stray, for an adventure. During the adventure they worry a flock of sheep, angering the shepherd who chases them away. At the end of a memorable day, probably the best day of Wag's life, they are running home when they come upon the shepherd. Spanley/Wag says "we just stopped being". He does not know what happened, but it was the end for Wag and his friend. We see the shepherd shooting the two dogs.

    Horatio is clearly moved and asks whether there was any pain. No, says Spanley. Horatio thinks of his dead son, who was killed in South Africa. He becomes emotional, and weeps for the first time. He bestows his deepest thanks on Spanley. He is able to mourn his son, and engage with life again. At the end of the film we see him in his garden playing with his new dog, a spaniel, in falling snow.

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