Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Dean Spanley”

Director: Toa Fraser 2008
A lovely film with a superlative cast (Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown) that escaped me until discovery via a random search of downloadable movies from Netflix (one reason for the film’s obscurity: Miramax, the American distributor, chose to release it straight to video and cable). Although I watched “Dean Spanley” before reading the book, I’d like to discuss the novel first for reasons I hope become apparent as we move along.
“My Talks With Dean Spanley” by Lord Dunsany appeared in 1936. Lord Who? I suggest you Google the author and his many accomplishments, but here are the opening grafs from Wikepedia:
“Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (24 July 1878 – 25 October 1957) was an Irish writer and dramatist, notable for his work, mostly in fantasy, published under the name Lord Dunsany. More than eighty books of his work were published, and his oeuvre includes many hundreds of published short stories, as well as successful plays, novels and essays.
“Born to one of the oldest titles in the Irish peerage, Dunsany lived much of his life at perhaps Ireland's longest-inhabited home, Dunsany Castle near Tara, worked with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, was chess and pistol-shooting champion of Ireland, and traveled and hunted extensively.”
He also fought in the Second Boer War and World War l, in which he served in the trenches and was wounded. A rich, event-filled life.
A mere 149 pages, the novel consists of exactly what the title implies: conversations between the narrator and Dean Spanley, a dignified, somewhat reticent Edwardian clergyman the narrator meets at his club and discovers a shared interest: the transmigration of souls. The narrator also discovers that the Dean enjoys a rare port—Imperial Tokay from Hungary—and under the wine’s influence the Dean regresses to a previous life: as a dog called Wag by his masters, although the dog himself prefers the name Moon-chaser because, as the Dean recalls: “Many’s the time I’ve told him [the moon] to go away and not look at me in that odd manner; and he pretended not to hear me. But he knew all right, and he knew he was odd and strange and in league with magic, and he knew what honest folks thought of him: I’ve told him many a time.”
A shaggy dog story, perhaps, but one told with great charm and insight. In her New York Times review, Katherine Woods praised Dunsany’s work for “its originality and wisdom, its understanding and subtlety and whimsical charm . . . [the book] can be read with the keenest enjoyment again and again and again.”
Quite so, but what a challenge for a screenwriter to turn an essentially plotless novel into a film. Enter the gifted Alan Sharp (b. 1934; credits include “The Hired Hand,” “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Night Moves”), who wrote a brilliant script, expanding the story and adding characters while remaining true to Dunsany’s original premise. Sharp’s script is a perfect example of how gifted writers can transform seemingly unfilmable material into a witty and quite moving film.
Without giving too much away, Sharp’s script provides the narrator (Northam) with a wealthy, cantankerous father (O’Toole in a great performance) who has withdrawn from life after the death of another son in, yes, the Second Boer War. Enter Dean Spanley (Neill) and his canine reminiscences, courtesy of the rare Imperial Tokay supplied by a sly fellow (Brown) who calls himself a “conveyancer.”
There are no special effects or make-up tricks here, and Neill never apes the mannerisms of his former four-legged entity. Rather, he ever-so-slightly relaxes his face, turning the starchy cleric into a blissful storyteller who clearly loved howling at the moon and chasing rabbits (Wag’s favorite prey).
There are several surprises along the way. The actors are at top form. There’s little action, save for dogs gamboling during parts of Spanley’s regressions, but the talk is gentle and evocative. Expertly directed by Fraser. A movie that deserved attention and awards. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


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