I’m surprised but pleased! Dean Spanley has won our poll to be the movie we watch for this week’s Jeremy Northam Night. I hope many of you will be able to join us on Friday to watch this wonderful movie. It is possible to find on region 2 DVD, and there are many places online where it can be viewed if you know where to look. If it’s a movie you haven’t seen before, I promise you are in for a treat. Dean Spanley boasts the most wonderfully talented cast, all are at the top of their game, and their performances are nurtured with consummate care, delicacy and heart by their director, New Zealander Toa Fraser:
Matthew Metcalfe, the young New Zealand producer of the fim, sort of pitched it to me as this sort of quirky tale about an Anglican dean who used to be a dog and drinks a lot of wine… I thought it sounded interesting enough but I was fascinated to learn a bit more about it. So, I read it and for me the real kicker in the script is the father and son story. It is a story that has all this fantastical, whimsical, quirky, crazy elements but at its core it’s a real heartfelt story about family. And I felt that was really quite audacious of the script to drop that kind of surprise on you. Reading it, I felt it was a great twist.
Extract from Toa Fraser’s interview for IndieLondon. The full interview can be read here: IndieLondon interview with Toa Fraser.
Film reviewer David Cairns (whose own blog Shadowplay is well worth a visit) is a big admirer of Dean Spanley and he was kind enough to contribute his review to The Jer Blog some time ago. It’s an excellent place to start if you’d like an overview of the movie. Here’s an extract:
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.
Back in February, I was lucky enough to be able to speak to character actor Dudley Sutton, who has a cameo in Dean Spanley, and here’s what he had to say about his experience of working on the movie:
“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.”
And of course we should re-visit what Jeremy himself had to say about the movie:
I’d be lying if I said that my heart didn’t sink slightly as I read yet another period movie having done so many and said I wouldn’t do any more. But it uses the expectations of a British period movie against itself to some extent. People take it as a by-word in British movies that everyone is repressed emotionally. I don’t think that’s true necessarily but you feel it goes with the territory and sets up nicely the idea of this festering relationship between the father and son. It’s not so much that they’re repressed emotionally, but they don’t hear each other and they don’t respond to each other.
But there were also elements of whimsy in the script that were self-evident right from the start. But it did also, I suppose, set alarm bells ringing a little bit in that I hoped it wouldn’t teeter in that direction too much. But Toa [Fraser, director] was very good from the start in reassuring us that he wouldn’t allow that to happen and the main thrust of the story was the possibility of understanding between these two men, who are affected by their grief in their own way. There’s a lot implied about the past relationships with the son who is dead and the film doesn’t stoop low enough to go into flashback or back story too much. In fact, the only back story you get is O’Toole at the table saying: “Bring out your dead” when there was a storm. But there’s a lot implied even in that story about the past history of the family unit. So, there’s a lot to feed off and really the more whimsical element of the script was really the device to get to the nub of the matter, which was the reconciliation between the two of them.
I think it’s interesting to see that it’s a middle-aged man in this story. So often with tales like these, it’s tempting to cut back to when he was a kid to explain the origins of the story, or to cast a much younger bloke. But there’s something about the fact that they’ve obviously both lived a bit and parts of them have died or been shut off, or given up. So, again, I thought there was room to explore that.
The full interview with Jeremy can be read here: IndieLondon interview with Jeremy Northam.
All it remains for me to say is that I hope you enjoy the movie! Don’t forget to report back and give us your thoughts.