Dean Spanley (2008)
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The screenplay by Alan Sharp is extremely intelligent and witty, with some of the best funny lines I have ever heard in a film. He has, if I may say so, improved the story by Lord Dunsany very much. The director did very elegant, unobtrusive and subtle, most convincing work in every regard. And the music should also be mentioned, as it perfectly reflected the tone and style of this film. The overall experience of this film is sheer pleasure, of the deep sort with maybe a tear in one's eye, and then a warm glow of delight and remembrance.
Actually, this is not a film about dogs, but about human beings. It is not an eccentric movie based on a strange premise, but a truthful one that reflects some of the deepest issues of our lives. It is not only very intelligent and funny and deeply moving, but among films definitely a work of art.
Peter O'Toole's character, old Mr. Fiske, believes himself to be impervious to pain. There are things that happen and are simply inevitable. There's no point in mourning. This belief drives a wedge between him and his son (Jeremy Northam), since O'Toole doesn't mourn properly for the loss of his other son or for his wife, who apparently died of grief.
Enter Sam Neill's character, Dean Spanley, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of a dog, and remembers with greatest joy the fun of rolling in dung and tearing apart rabbits. Young Fiske (Northam) discovers this and plies the man with Tokay to get Spanley to open up about his past life. And the Tokay -- supplied by a strange and rough but very funny fellow named Wrather (Bryan Brown) -- works its magic, getting Spanley to reminisce about the good old days as a dog even as both young and old Fiske AND Wrather all realize something critical about the dogs Spanley remembers.
I won't say more, as I don't want to spoil it; I will simply say I loved it. I don't believe in reincarnation, but this is a movie any dog lover can enjoy, as well as anyone who's ever had a strained relationship with a parent or child. You're left with a smile and a bit of mist over the eyes and perhaps a wild impulse to go and roll in some dung, or chase a rabbit.
The incomparable Peter O'Toole at the peak of his mastery, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, and Bryan Brown weave an immersive presentation of pure acting talent such as is seldom seen. And it is set up by top-notch writing, exquisite sets and beautiful cinematography and costuming.
Mr. O'Toole can match the very best acting in cinematic history using only his eyes
Surrender the one hundred minutes and be attentive to this incognito masterpiece - a refreshingly warm and wonderful experience perpetrated by the author, the producer, the director and consummate actors in made-for-roles. For the mature of all ages.
Quote - Young Fisk: "It is a common place observation that remarkable events often have ordinary beginnings"
Quote - Old Fisk to Young Fisk: "One moment you are running along, the next, you are, no more"
Set in Edwardian England where upper lips are always stiff and men from the Colonies are not entirely to be trusted, Fisk Senior (Peter O'Toole) is caustic, nihilistic has little time or affection for his son Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) - they visit only on Thursdays and then in only the most routine of circumstances: even the housekeeper Mrs. Brimley (Judy Parfitt) knows to only fix one boring Hot Pot for them to eat. Fisk Senior seems to have placed all his hopes on his other son who was killed in the Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Fisk Junior encouraged by his friend Wrather (Bryan Brown) breaks tradition and takes his father to a talk by the guru Nawab of Ranjiput (Ramon Tikaram) where they hear about the Indian concept of reincarnation and the inferiority of cats. The lecture is attended also by a vicar named Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and what follows is a series of conversations and revelations over glasses of Tokay that seem to open up the vicar's remembrance of past lives - a fact that eventually relates to Fisk Senior and manages to change the grumpy old man's outlook on life.
Directed by Toa Fraser with terrific atmosphere and Edwardian elegance, the actors are all superb, but one of the most satisfying aspects of this film is simply hearing a screenplay of perfect English spoken symphonically. It is a thoroughly delightful film on every level. Highly Recommended.
The most remarkable of all of the movie's components is its plot, which counteracts against central character Fisk Senior's (Peter O'Toole) callous, very much close-minded approach to life. Going from happenstance to coincidence and then closely followed by an almost prophetic like relationship, Fisk's son strikes up an interesting bond with the local Dean (Sam Neill), who when under the modest influence of the rarest of wines, recalls his past life as a canine. From here on in the feature exposes its most bizarre roots, showcasing a character and story that often perplexes more than intrigues, but amuses all the same. It's certainly an interesting, and for the most part engaging narrative, but for all intents and purposes always feels like second batter to much firmer and more developed elements. This, along with a somewhat overdone conclusion forms what are perhaps the movie's only two major faults, but even then such moments are not without their inherent charm and significance to the remainder of the feature.
It is instead through the character of Fisk Senior and his relationship with his ever unappreciated and frustrated son Fisk Junior (Jeremy Northam) that Dean Spanley is best at documenting and exploring. As a father and a general human being, Senior is a callous, opinionated and close minded bastard; by all means he means no real harm through his stern actions -in fact through his eyes he sees himself as teaching the world a well deserved lesson- but to those around him, he remains a senile old coot not worth paying attention to. Junior is very much his antithesis, no doubt taking more of his deceased mother's genes than his fathers, and as a result the dynamic between the two is consistently engaging to watch and always palpable. Director Toa Fraser does particularly well in directing the two to be familiar but withdrawn from each other, resulting in a relationship that counteracts that between Junior and Dean Spanley.
As mentioned above however, it is within these frequent highlights of the film that only go to make the less tangible moments that exist without Senior's presence more obvious and dubious. Dean Spanley tells a fine, and notably uplifting story, but its heart and core lies within its characters that are most prominent in the forms of O'Toole and Northam. It's worth mentioning then that as the feature goes on, focus on each is given adequate balance, culminating in a clashing of the two characters' stories in a timid manner that is made all the more profound by Mr. O'Toole's performance. It's a somewhat out of place resolution, and one that seems to go against the character of Fisk Senior a little too much, but the emotional payoff that is warranted from such a shift makes up for any out of balance characterisation.
For all its eccentricities, dry humour and rich sense of character however, it must be noted that the experience of watching Dean Spanley certainly isn't for everyone. A drama rooted in classic prose, focusing heavily on character, philosophy and small nuances of psychology and life, Toa Fraser here sticks to his guns and delivers an unapologetically intelligent, cultured and insightful character study kept in check by warmth of heart and unique personality. If there is one major selling point for the feature that will allow all audiences to get something from the feature however, it simply lies within the timeless presence of Peter O'Toole who gives a wonderful performance befitting of his stature and the character in which he resides. It can be a touching, humorous and even thought-provoking experience, but like a fine wine, you're best not to get too involved here; this one's for sitting back and soaking in one sip at a time, and yes, it might be a little syrupy but it's enough to get lost in and enjoy all the same.
- Written by Jamie Robert Ward (http://www.invocus.net)
What's it about? Well it has men, women, dogs and wine; it is set in Edwardian England, and if having watched it you think its about man's best friend, then please avoid having children, let your genes stop with you.
To me Dean Spanley was like one of those magic eye pictures; where you may stare for a long time before the mind relaxes and lets you realise what you are looking at - and in this case it is a real work of art.
Be warned this is a deceptively powerful story - take tissues.
Dean Spanley is a quirky but very moving and well written story about family,friendship,dogs and wine.
Set during the early 1900's it tells the story of Mr Fisk Junior(Jeremy Northam)who's life mainly revolves around Thursday meetings with his distant father Horatio Fisk(Peter O'Toole).
Horatio is emotionally distant and set in his ways and is silently mourning the death of his other son Harrington.Harrington was killed in the Boar war and his death destroyed the family with his mother dying of her grief.On one Thursday outing to attend a seminar on reincarnation they meet the mysterious priest Dean Spanley(Sam Neill).The Dean we later learn believes he was a dog in a past life and keeps having flashbacks to that life.
Fisk Junior along with the good old Australian middle man Wrather(Bryan Brown)invites the Dean to dinner several times to learn more about him.Wrather is able to purchase several cases of Imperial Tokay wine(which never fails to unleash the Deans past experiences in truly hysterical scenes).
Although I love the book I prefer the film mainly because in the book Horatio doesn't appear it's just Fisk Junior,Wrather and the Dean sitting around having dinner.And it's the touching story of the father and son reconnecting and dealing with their grief that allows this to work so well.
Peter O'Toole is heartbreaking in this and makes the film for me and there's top support from Sam Neill,Bryan Brown,Art Malick and Judy Parfit as Horatio's long suffering housekeeper Mrs Brimley.Alan Sharpes screenplay transfers to the screen beautifully and is the right mix of joy,the bizarre and sadness.
This is a must see that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure you won't be disappointed by this little gem.
The story starts with a narration by Young Fisk, who is visiting the elder Fisk at his home. Their relationship is strained and combative. They decide to spend the day together in a rather unusual way. It is the beginning of a journey by Young Fisk that will culminate in some discoveries and some wondrous understandings.
Set circa 1910, as the motorcar becomes a symbol for the declining past and the nascent future, one of the best elements of this film, in my opinion, is its richness of tone. Scenes are shot lovingly, with an emphasis on art, and its beauty, as it occurs in architecture, painting, literature, language, music, and the enrichment of the senses.
"Dean Spanley" reminds one of the joys of the well-written tale, where language enthralls. As a film, it celebrates the well-read line, the poignancy in pauses, the synergy between image and music.
And it gives us some performances to be cherished. Though no performance is dissonant in this film, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Peter O'Toole as the elder Fisk and Sam Neill as Dean Spanley. Do yourself a favor and bask in their prodigiousness.
To put it all in perspective: thank goodness there are some people around in the film world prepared to produce films of this calibre for apparently no other reason than that they like films and like making good ones. It is a British and New Zealand co-production which astutely avoids all the pitfalls many smaller scale British films fall into. Its lightness of touch is admirable where all too often Brit films are just a tad heavy-handed and suffer as a result. There is only a small cast just five main characters and the story itself is superficially slight, yet it packs a punch which touches true emotion rather than mere sentimental whimsy. It would be unfair to pick out any particular performance because none stands out above the others they are all excellent, as is the gently witty screenplay.
Its evocation of Edwardian Britain is all the better for being understated this is no 'period piece' and thus avoids the horrors just beneath the surface which many a 'period piece' singularly fails to avoid. My advice to everyone is to watch this and savour everything about it. If you like well-made films, you will probably love this. I shan't bother to provide a synopsis because that would be thoroughly misleading. There's far more to this than meets the eye.
Despite the title role which was wonderfully performed by Sam Neill, "Dean Spanley" is O'Toole's film. Structurally, it is akin to a male choral quartet, but O'Toole is "the soul of the film" as the TIFF program aptly puts it.
You could call this a period piece but the story is so universal that it could have taken place anywhere, any time. O'Toole portrays a desolate old man Fisk who has lost his younger son in the Boer War and his wife grieving her son. His good-natured elder son Fisk Jr. (Jeremy Northam) visits him every Thursday trying to bring some spark back into his life, with no avails. Upper lip at it stiffest, Fisk responds to his club's attendant's consoling words with fierce stare and: "Our lost? He is the one that got killed".
This film, however, is a comedy, the kind of comedy with pathos that brings the entire theatre to a complete silence and then tears, after rounds of hearty laughs. The laughs are mainly British subtlety and can at times be also outlandishly funny. The fun comes mainly from Spanley, a somewhat eccentric character shrouded in a whiff of mystery. Attracted initially by Spanley's fascination with reincarnation, Fisk Jr. courts his friendship by offering to provide the exquisite Tokay wine while giving a dinner invitation. He does not have any. "It's not a lie; just deferred truth", Fisk Jr. says to himself, and proceeds to try to procure the rare prize he promised, which leads him to earthy, ever resourceful Wrather (Byran Brown) who completes the quartet.
The pleasure of this simple, affecting and eventually wonderfully heart-warming film is best left to be discovered by the audience. The cast is marvelous, including, in addition to the four men, Judy Parfitt who plays Fisk's housekeeper Mrs Brimley so lovingly. But in the end, it's Peter O'Toole.
Once upon a time, more than hundred years ago, before Google, before computers, before television, before movies, before radio, intelligent people still quested for understanding. If you are curious about reincarnation you might go to a public lecture and be aware of other people in the audience. The mysteries of why pain comes into your life, what gives happiness, can a soul survive death is the same in any century, and a quiet persistent pursuit yields result.
The other reviewers do an excellent job of telling of Fisk Jr. Trying through weekly visits to thaw his curmudgeon distant father. was the father always abrasive and bitter? Will he always be so?
What unlocks the emotions is a shaggy dog story. Somehow the aroma of a rare wine enjoyed by Dean Spanley unlocks the acute sense of smell of a dead spaniel, who lives again to tell his adventure. This is the adventure of the three astonished men and you the audience. It is more emotionally rewarding than all the explosions and chases and violence that are not in this film.
This film is a delight... well written, acted, and directed. My wife and I have now watched it six times. Each time we discover yet another hilarious, brilliant touch. This movie is funny, 'very intelligent, uplifting, and at the same time extremely thoughtful. Peter O'Toole is a hoot. Get it (you will have to order the DVD from Canada)... watch it (it is available to download in the US).. tell your friends about it. This movie is the real deal.
I am a little baffled at some of the lukewarm critical reviews I have read here. The member reviews have been much more generous. I can find little or no fault with the movie and have watched it several times over just to enjoy all of its subtle little nuances.