A shaggy dog story if ever there was, Dean Spanley is a slight but sweetly charming tale about an Edwardian cleric who believes he has had a past life as a dog.
The film opens in 1904 in London, where Jeremy Northam’s Henslowe Fisk, known as ‘Young Fisk’, pays weekly Thursday calls to his crabbed and cranky father, Horatio Fisk, or ‘Old Fisk’ – a splendidly curmudgeonly Peter O’Toole. The visits are thankless affairs for the younger man, who struggles to engage with his father. Old Fisk, it seems, has clamped shut his heart since the death in the Boer War of Henslowe’s brother Harrington and the death from grief of their mother soon after.
One Thursday, in an effort to divert his father, Henslowe takes them to a lecture on ‘The Transmigration of Souls’ being held at the home of the cricket-loving Nawab of Ranjiput, who has built a pitch in the middle of his marble hall.
At the lecture they encounter bluff Australian Wrather (Bryan Brown), and the eponymous dean (Sam Neill). Intrigued by Spanley’s eccentric behaviour after running into him twice more in quick succession, Henslowe lures him to dinner on the promise of a bottle of Imperial Tokay, a rare sweet Hungarian wine that even though it was produced solely for the Hapsburg monarchy is procured by the resourceful Wrather.
On drinking the Tokay, Spanley drifts into a kind of trance in which he talks as if from the point of view of a dog. Is he barking mad? Or could cross-species reincarnation actually exist?
Based on a novel by Lord Dunsany, a writer with a penchant for supernatural tales, Dean Spanley is deliberately old-fashioned in mood and undeniably leisurely in tempo, but writer-director Toa Fraser gradually draws the viewer in, aided by a bunch of veteran actors at the top of their game. It may take a while to get there, but the film’s moving emotional payoff, embracing reconciliation and redemption, grief and consolation, is well worth the wait.