(Directed by Toa Fraser) (2009)
Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany; 24 July 1878 – 25 October 1957) wrote a book in 1936 called “Conversations with Dean Spanley,” a whimsical piece about reincarnation (as well as re-living). The whimsy continues in this film curio, based on the book.
Middle-aged London gadabout Fisk (Jeremy Northam) visits his crabby father (Peter O’Toole) every Thursday. Old Mr. Fisk might inhabit Edwardian times but his heart and soul are rooted in the early Victorian – a sense of duty, plain common sense and a robust attitude to loss. (Men die every day, so dry thy tears, Bono!) Old Fisk lost his other son in the Boer War, and then his wife to the consequent grief, but he doesn’t go banging on about it. He’s accumulated a coat of hard varnish that keeps emotion and his other son at bay, leaving him to maintain anything outside his cloistered experience is “poppycock.”
Enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), who attends a lecture on reincarnation and attracts the attention of Fisk, also present with his curmudgeon of a Dad. Meeting again at the old man’s club, and then whilst the Dean seems to be barking up the wrong tree, an acquaintance is formed, with the help of an adroit, antipodean middle-man (Bryan Brown) who unearths a vintage royal Tokay, the Dean’s preferred tipple. After two glasses, the Dean tells his recollections of a past life as “Wag” the dog. Adding coincidence upon coincidence, the Fisk family’s faithful spaniel was named Wag, who disappeared one day and never came back.
The whole melange is ridiculous, but oddly fresh and intriguing, and, crucially, helped along by the charm of the principals: Neill brilliantly plays it completely straight, daring to make his outrageous character virtually pedestrian – Northam is a suave and yet fixated ‘hero’ – O’Toole has a great time chewing the antique scenery, and Brown provides appropriate earthiness as the sensible Australian.
A lot of people hated and despised Dean Spanley, when it came out a decade ago. We didn’t, finding it silly but delightful, trite but sweet, obvious and yet, rather moving. You don’t have to swallow “the transmigration of souls” to appreciate that people can find themselves again – learn to live again – in company, and the company of a dog will not only suffice, it will trump a horde of psychiatrists any dog-day.