Dean Spanley, a perfect whimsy

17 Feb

Even to think about Dean Spanley provokes a warm glow in me. It is, in my opinion, one of most perfect little films made in recent years. I am constantly recommending it, but I get a little stuck when I do so: it is somewhat of a hard sell because it’s very tricky to pin down what it’s about in a way that seems to recommend it! I usually give up completely with trying to describe the plot and instead just list the cast: Peter O’Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt, Dudley Sutton.

Jeremy Northam, Peter O'Toole and Dudley Sutton

Having read that wonderful line up of excellent acting talent, you are now favourably impressed, so I will press my advantage and attempt to tell you what the film is about. Be prepared to be slightly baffled! It’s based on a little known (these days) book by Lord Dunsany, My Talks with Dean Spanley. It’s intriguing and strange, but screenwriter Alan Sharp and director Toa Fraser have worked wonders with it and crafted as perfect a piece of whimsy as you will ever see. Set around 1910, in London (though filmed in Wisbech and Norwich in East Anglia) the story revolves around the relationship between a father and son, Fisks Snr and Jnr (O’Toole and Northam). Fisk Jnr is bound by duty to visit his father weekly, but their relationship has become frozen as a result of the deaths of both his brother (in the Boer War) and mother. Frustrated by his father’s unwillingness to confront his grief, Fisk Jnr takes his father to a talk on reincarnation, where they meet Dean Spanley (Neill) and Wrather (Brown). Fisk Jnr is interested by Spanley, and invites him to dinner, where he discovers that the Dean’s favourite drink (Imperial Tokay) “transports him to another place” and appears to return him to his former life as a dog.

I won’t say any more, but having read all that, you’ll understand why I usually opt not to describe the plot in too much detail! Often, all I say is that it’s about a father and son, reincarnation, and that it helps if you like dogs!

Peter O’Toole as Fisk Snr is terrific: irrascible, yet vulnerable. Jeremy Northam is wonderful as Fisk Jnr. His is the least showy role amongst the male actors, but we see everything through his eyes (Fisk Jnr is the narrator), and he skillfully and subtly leads us through the complexities of the emotional core of the film. Sam Neill pitches Dean Spanley just right, never overdoing what could so easily become daft, and Bryan Brown is the ideal colonial who can find you anything, anytime at the right price. All of these wonderful actors are at the top of their game, no one upstaging anyone else, each scene perfectly crafted.

Dudley Sutton as Marriott in Dean Spanley

Dudley Sutton, who plays Marriott, told me: “Dean Spanley was special to work on, very gentle, very peaceful and, although I only had a cameo, it was choice. To work in close-up with an inspired director, and with an old pal, O’Toole, and to meet Jeremy, was a gift. I am sure Dean Spanley‘s reputation will grow with time. I remember it as one of the special gifts that come the way of a working character actor, just now and then.”

I can’t help but agree with Dudley, that the reputation of this perfect film will grow with time. It certainly deserves to. It’s full of humour, wit, charm, warmth and emotion. If, like me, you enjoy a beautifully crafted film, with exquisite performances, and you want to have both laughed and cried (and be quoting the film the next day), then Dean Spanley will not disappoint.

Dean Spanley (dir. Toa Fraser, 2008)

With many thanks to Dudley Sutton for his contribution. As well as being a renowned character actor, Dudley Sutton is also a gifted poet. You can find out more about Dudley by visiting his website:

Jeremy Northam is about to be seen on US tv screens every week in Miami Medical, as Dr Matt Proctor, to air on CBS from April 2, 2010. The promos can be seen at

To meet other fans, get the latest news and chat about Jeremy’s work (a warm welcome is assured), please visit:

many thanks to Joan (HazelPennicott) for the screencaps

by henrysmummy2003

2 Responses to “Dean Spanley, a perfect whimsy”

  1. Ansie February 18, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    Thanks so much for your post regarding this lovely, magical film. It’s a gem. I enjoyed hearing from Dudley Sutton, too. What a treat. Thanks!

  2. Frokostordning March 10, 2010 at 4:10 am #

    Hm hm.. that’s quiet interessting but actually i have a hard time visualizing it… I’m wondering what others have to say….

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