I hadn’t heard of director Toa Fraser but I was drawn to DEAN SPANLEY, his film, for a variety of reasons.
1) The cast is excellent, with the underrated Jeremy Northam, the always excellent Sam Neill, and the indefatigable Peter O’Toole. Plus Bryan Brown (it’s been a while) and Judy Parfitt.
2) The screenplay is by Scottish writer Alan Sharp, who penned ROB ROY, whose resemblance to a classical western is easy to understand when you take into consideration his authorship of ULZANA’a RAID and BILLY TWO HATS. Cinephiles probably prize his screenplay of NIGHT MOVES most dearly of all.
3) The story is by Lord Dunsany, whose stuff I haven’t read but have been intrigued by on reputation alone. Pretty sure I’m going to read some now.
I noticed this film just before it came out, and then failed to see it on release. I’m now recommending EVERYBODY see it. To the above reasons, which I knew of before I watched it, I can add these –
1) It’s an intelligent weepy. It creeps up on you and then gently wrings your tear ducts till they squeak. In dealing with our relationships with our pets, and making a connection to our other, human, relationships, it’s skating on some thin ice, with a treacly Tokay of sentiment just below the surface, but I didn’t feel manipulated: instead I felt that the film illuminated something true about these strange “friendships” we form with animals.
2) Don McGlashan’s sumptuous score walks a similarly fine line, and with grace.
3) Leon Narbey’s cinematography is rich and pleasing, and somehow skirts the dangerous waters of “heritage cinema,” which the plush Edwardian decor brings us close to.
4) I confess to mixed feelings about Fraser’s direction: he presides over magnificent performances, and his filming of them is very solid and sometimes quite elegant, but he occasionally attempts a cutaway to a detail or a wide shot of an environment, and it doesn’t always add anything. The piece is so driven by performances that anything else gets in the way — with the exception of the slomo shots of bounding dogs, with which he is on safe ground. Perhaps a more vigorous and imaginative approach could have added layers of cinematic life to Sharp’s typically epigrammatic and thoughtful script, but what is there is more than enough to satisfy.
On reviewing, I found a lot of unobtrusive craft in the subtle way Fraser weaves the camera around and towards his characters, contributing greatly to the film’s unique, solemn-quirky atmosphere.
I imagine Lasse Hallstrom pitched his new movie, HACHIKO: A DOG’S STORY (Richard Gere + dog = dog) as “It’s MY LIFE AS A DOG, only with a dog.” The damn thing probably works, in terms of uplift and sentiment and a good work-out for the old weeping apparatus, but I suspect I would feel used by it. That’s where DEAD SPANLEY scores.
There’s an oddball plot here: Jeremy Northam is frustrated by his stiff-upper lip dad (O’Toole), who refuses to mourn the son he lost in the Boer War, or his wife, who died from grief. “When a thing goes to the trouble of happening, it is best regarded as inevitable,” is his bluff philosophy. Then Northam meets Spanley (Neill) at a talk on reincarnation, and discovers that the cleric is oddly affected by his favourite tipple, Tokay, which causes him to remember his past life as a Welsh spaniel. More remarkably still, it starts to seem that as a spaniel Neill may actually have belonged to O’Toole — his beloved dog, Wag. “One of the seven great dogs. At any one time, there are only seven.”
Where on earth is this going, you ask, and that indeed is one of the pleasures of the film: not knowing. The purpose of it all is carefully concealed until an hour in, but we were hypnotized by the expert playing and the charming insights into canine psychology afforded by the dean’s glimpses of his previous existence. And it’s all the more unpredictable because the film doesn’t appear to be for anyone, in a commercial sense. Which is refreshing. Most good books aren’t targeted in the rather deplorable way that films have to be, after all. I love genre films, but it’s frustrating to me that you can’t, for example, make a horror film with a child protagonist, despite childhood being a great source of fear, because the audience for horror films is perceived to be teenage, and what teenager wants to watch their kid brother or sister in a movie?
So while DEAN SPANLEY may have suffered from being a hard project to situate in the marketplace, I’m hoping to do something to spread word of mouth that will help at least a few people discover it. The movie deserves it. It not only offers an emotional release, it reflects upon the value and nature of that release, which is one possible way to differentiate between what’s repulsively known as a “tear-jerker” (even porno movies don’t get called “sperm-jerkers”, do they?) and a movie which deals with emotion as subject.
Perhaps, I found myself thinking, we keep animals with shorter lives than ourselves, in part to practice our mourning. That, after all, is such a big part of what we have to do in life.
Available from Amazon UK: Dean Spanley [DVD] 
By David Cairns, originally posted at Shadowplay and reproduced here by kind permission.