Review by Jack Foley
TOA Fraser’s quirky Dean Spanley is a real oddity – a film that boasts a terrific cast and a genuinely poignant father-son relationship at its core, but which is also about the spirit of reincarnated dogs!
It’s England, 1904, and Henslows Fisk (Jeremy Northam) and his ailing father Horatio (Peter O’Toole) decide to attend a lecture on reincarnation, where they happen upon Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), as well as Wrather (Bryan Brown), a self-described facilitator from the colonies.
While Horatio is sceptical of the lecture, Henslows is taken by Dean Spanley and – after two more chance encounters – eventually invites him for dinner, enticing him with the promise of his favourite tipple, Tokay. Upon drinking it, though, Spanley suddenly begins reminiscing from the perspective of a dog. Could it be that the holy man has a distant link to a Fisk family tragedy and will the revelation of it provide Henslows with the opportuntiy of patching things up with his father?
If the premise sounds a little obscure, then that’s because it is – and audiences will almost certainly be divided between those that find it a charming, heart-warming affair, or those that find it, quite simply, barking mad.
It’s enlivened considerably, however, by the fine performances of its excellent cast – with O’Toole, in particular, on exemplary form, especially late on as scepticism gives way to reflection, gloom and, ultimately, happiness.
But Northam provides an excellent foil as his determined son, while Neill works wonders to prevent his own portrayal descending into parody.
Fraser, the director, also deserves credit for not over-milking the more comical elements and allowing the film to exist, first and foremost, as a resonant family tale, and – as such – aspects of it will certainly be familiar to every father and/or son who goes to see it.
But when all is said and done, you may still be scratching your head in bewilderment afterwards, working out if what you’ve just seen really was about reincarnated dogs. And yes, it really is!
Running time: 100mins
UK DVD Release: April 27, 2009
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Read the review
- Jeremy Northam interview
- Tao Fraser interview
- Dean Spanley UK Premiere photos