Dean Spanley is a family film and a sweet film and a kindly film with the most delicious cast (Peter O’Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Judy Parfitt) but it is also a slow film — the first hour is almost unbearably uneventful — which could do with a bit of a rocket up its backside, not that I am volunteering to do it. Hell’s bells, it’s nearly Christmas! I don’t have time for rockets and backsides! As it is, I’m waking nightly at 4 a.m. thinking, ‘Brandy butter; what’s all that about, then?’ Rockets and backsides! You do it, if it means so much to you, but do leave alone the final half an hour, which is engrossing and delightful and stars a smashing Welsh spaniel with fabulous, flappy ears. Yes, I’m a dog person and would actually like to point out at this juncture that a dog is not just for Christmas, particularly if it goes on to higher education and wants to be a doctor. If this is the case, you’d better start putting money aside right now.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes, Dean Spanley: a curious name for a curious, doggy film based on the 1936 novella by Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish fantasy writer who, I’m assuming, wrote fantastically whenever his lording schedule would allow. It’s set in London during Edwardian times and stars Northam as Henslowe Fisk who, every Thursday, dutifully visits his spectacularly grumpy, snappy father, Fisk Snr, as played by Peter O’Toole with great curmudgeonly campness and quite a lot of eyeliner. Fisk Snr, it turns out, lost his other son in the Boer War, and then his wife shortly afterwards, but has yet to grieve, or deal with this double loss in any way. We know that something is going to make him thaw, that this is the story’s purpose — we’re quite stupid, but not that stupid — but what? Bring on the dogs?
Not yet, alas, not yet. First, enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), whom both Fisk men initially meet at a lecture on reincarnation — not much of a lecture, Art Malik says a couple of fairly tedious things and then buggers off — and whom Fisk Jr. then cultivates to surreal effect: under the influence of a particular Hungarian liqueur, the Dean will begin to reminisce about his previous life as a dog. The sniffing, the turning in feverish circles when excited, the joy of another dog’s scent on a lamppost, but not how much it costs when a dog wants to study medicine. Dogs, I have noticed, keep pretty quiet about that.
Now, a couple of things here: 1) as the first hour is almost entirely devoted to Henslowe’s search for that particular Hungarian liqueur, it’s just not a very interesting hour and 2) imagine, once being a dog and now being a human. Just how tragic is that? I don’t know of a single human who is truly happy, but a dog? I have a dog and if my dog could speak I’m pretty sure he would say, ‘I sniffed a bush! I barked at a squirrel and it ran up a tree! I drank from the toilet! I sniffed a visitor’s crotch! I’ve had a great day!’ Does a dog wake at 4 a.m. worrying about brandy butter? It does not. I wish I were a dog.
Anyway, this is by the by. Back to it. OK, when it transpires that Dean Spanley wasn’t just any dog, but was the childhood Welsh spaniel of a certain curmudgeonly, grumpy, snappy person, things hot up thawing wise, just as things hot up for us. Now, and perhaps not before time, the narrative switches to flashback mode and we see the Dean as that spaniel, which is both charming and absorbing. I don’t know why the director, Toa Fraser, decided to save all this up for the end, rather than thread the flashbacks throughout, which might have made for a more consistently entertaining movie, but there you have it.
Yes, this is a thin tale overstretched, a snack straining to be dinner, but this isn’t to say it doesn’t have its joys, because it does. Peter O’Toole is always a joy, obviously, as is Judy Parfitt, who plays his tart housekeeper. It’s ultimate doggyness is a joy, too, particularly if you are a doggy person and know the sorts of things a dog wouldn’t say, even if it could (‘What, no salad garnish?’ is one, as is: ‘I feel so cheap and worthless after casual sex’), but I’m struggling to see who Dean Stanley is for exactly. It seems too talky-talky for young kids and I’m not sure that adults will buy the bizarre premise, which only properly delivers right at the end and then does so rather cornily. Still, there is no harm in it, and no body count, and no brandy butter. What is that all about? I so do wish I was a dog, seriously.