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) has little time or affection for his last remaining son Henslow (Jeremy Northam), whose brother was killed in the Boer War - soon to be followed by his mother's untimely death, heartbroken with grief. But when the pair casually visit eccentric Indian Swami Prash (Art Malik), lecturing on reincarnation, they meet Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and a knockabout Australian bloke called Wrather (Bryan Brown) - and inadvertently start a strange journey that involves them all as the Dean's recollections, oiled by rare bottles of Hungarian Imperial Tokai, reveal amazing and cathartic connections from the past.
Review by Louise Keller:
A wondrous story about cats and dogs, fathers and sons and the elusive bottle of Hungarian Imperial Tokay that brings them all together, Dean Spanley is a rather special film. The original story comes from a 1936 novella by Lord Dunsany and New Zealand director Toa Fraser embraces the material with great warmth, subtlety and humour. Only the closed mind is certain, replies Sam Neill's Dean Spanley, when quizzed about reincarnation after a lecture on the subject. What is certain is this is a film that allows us to shed our preconceptions and to embrace the impossible. The absurd is countered by the profound and the result is a warm-hearted, often funny story with meaningful undertones and a heart as big as a full moon is round. Such moons also have a role in this story.
Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Northam play father and son, unable to connect on any level. O'Toole's Fisk Snr is a creature of habit ('you know where you are and that's nowhere') while Northam's Fisk Jnr is desperately trying to shift some aspect of their weekly confrontations. It is more desperation than anything else that draws him to a notice in his father's freshly ironed newspaper about a lecture by an Indian guru (Art Malik) promoting 'the transmigration of souls'. Thus heralds a meeting with Bryan Brown's self-acclaimed facilitator and hoarder of incongruous things and Neill's Dean Spanley who revels in reaching an altered state when indulging in a tipple of the golden dessert wine Tokay. Incongruously we learn fleas have a purpose, light grows louder and the smell of fear is intoxicating. And dogs elevate man's estimation of himself, whereas cats only diminish it. Intriguing, indeed.
The success of the film relies almost entirely on the performances from four very different actors, and each contributes greatly. Northam, our guide, navigates us strongly through the story and the extraordinary O'Toole plays his stiff upper-lip British father to perfection. Bryan Brown is better than ever is this tailor-made colonial larrikin role, while Sam Neill injects subtleties we have never seen before, allowing us to believe his every word. There's something delightfully innocent about this film, which in turn enables us a magical and emotionally satisfying experience we are unlikely to forget.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Dean Spanley gives an original twist to the eternal and universal father-son relationship story, in Alan Sharp's satisfying expansion of the original novella. The screenplay retains the core device of Henslow Fisk's (Jeremy Northam) evermore bizarre dinner conversations with Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), but adds the key ingredient of a son wishing to come to some form of emotional communication with his ageing father.
Jeremy Northam creates a well rounded Edwardian son whose sense of duty hides a profound frustration with his father's refusal to embrace him emotionally. Peter O'Toole is magnificent as the old Fiske with a body full of bottled up pain and grief that he won't allow to seek expression. Sam Neil is the surprising Dean Spanley, whose fondness for Hungarian liqueur wine, Tokay, leads him to reveal the most amazing recollections of an earlier life - a life that connects him to his hosts the Fisks, whose son has managed to obtain some rare bottles. And that's thanks to 'facilitator' Wrather (Bryan Brown in a well judged performance), who ends up playing an all important role in the saga that Dean Spanley reveals.
Judy Parfitt is a delight as Mrs Brimley, Fisk senior's long time housekeeper and cook, who is well aware of her boss' shortcomings but loves him nevertheless. And cooks his favourite hotpot on demand - every day.
Toa Fraser's sensitive direction of this deceptively challenging and surprisingly satisfying film, keeps the tone perfectly balanced in the manner of perhaps an eccentric English tale with dashes of humour and pathos. The film's beautiful images are adorned with an economical score and marvellous production design; in all, a gently reassuring film about the human condition that offers healing for the deepest wounds.
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INTERVIEW WITH SAM NEILL & MATTHEW METCALFE
DEAN SPANLEY (G)
CAST: Peter O'Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt, Art Malik, Ramon Tikaram
NARRATION: Jeremy Northam
PRODUCER: Alan Harris
DIRECTOR: Toa Fraser
SCRIPT: Alan Sharp (book by Lord Dunsany)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Leon Narbey
EDITOR: Chris Plummer
MUSIC: Don McGlashan
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Andrew McAlpine
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 5, 2009