Film Review: Dean Spanley

Yes, there are actual life events happening, but it’s too hot/I’m too busy playing video games and enjoying myself to bother telling you about all that right now, and instead want to very briefly review the film I just saw.

The 2008 film “Dean Spanley” features a great cast and is recommended to the following groups:
1. People who like period pieces
2. People who love dogs
3. People who enjoy emotional, humorous films
4. People who want to see a good movie

Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam, well-known to anglophiles) is an Edwardian gentleman who reluctantly visits his crotchety father (Peter O’Toole), the only other living member of the family as his younger brother Harrington died in the Boer War and his mother died shortly after of grief. It should come as no surprise to anyone that O’Toole is great in his role, but for anyone who has ever been around an old person who is just INTOLERABLE, he is exquisite. He refuses to mourn his dead son and wife and makes life as painful and uncomfortable for Young Fisk as he possibly can. His only subject of emotion and joy in conversation is reminiscing over his childhood Welsh Spaniel, Wag, “One of the seven great dogs. For at any one time, there are only seven.”

In one weekly visit, Henslowe is able to drag his curmudgeonly father to a lecture from a swami on reincarnation, and it is there they bump into Dean Spanley, a quiet gentleman with a ravenous fondness for rare and expensive Tokay (which, by the way, is delicious). Henslowe is fascinated by the Dean, played beautifully and subtly by Sam Neill, and is able to convince him to join him for dinner by wrangling Tokay at great expense from Australian “conveyancer” Wrather, played by Bryan Brown. With enough Tokay, Spanley enters an altered state of mind, relating his knowledge of a previous life as a dog.

What follows is a blissful, painful, amusing and enticing jaunt between the four; Henslowe and Wrather, desperate to acquire more Tokay and learn more of Spanley’s life as a dog (of which he is completely unaware when not indulging in Tokay) – and the struggle between Elder and Younger Fisk. O’Toole resents that his son is sacrificing their weekly meetings to spend time with Spanley, yet all the same cannot manage to be kind or considerate on any level. Northam is too angry with his father for his closed-mindedness and lack of compassion to be able to bridge the gap that separates them, but at the same time wants to be a dutiful son.

The end result? The slow realization of Henslowe that Spanley may well be the reincarnation of his father’s beloved dog, Wag, and the arrangement of a dinner for all four characters, where at last we learn why Wag left home one day and never returned to his waiting master (not to be spoiled here). More than that, Fisk Sr. is finally brought to terms with the losses of his long life and experiences their pain when he would not face them before. His son is able to see the kind side of his father, that which we show our beloved animals. They are brought together as a family at last – and Fisk at last gets himself another spaniel.

This film has many things going for it; we hear the thoughts and feelings of Spanley as Wag in a way that is entirely serious in nature, but humorous in result and absolutely believable. If dogs do not think in this manner, surely they must think and feel similarly. The writing and story, though simple and lacking the kind of action most modern audiences come to expect, is told sumptuous through Northam’s dulcet narration. The characters are human, flawed and sympathetic, and set design, costumes, cinematography and score blend into a perfect dream of life.

Perhaps it is because I have lost one of the seven great dogs myself that the film reduced me to tears (which does not happen often), or perhaps it is the nature of the moving film itself. But while it may sound strange or thread-bare when told here, it is an absolute gem of a picture and cannot be recommended highly enough. “Dean Spanley” tells more than the story of a dog – it tells a story of a human heart.

Overall film quality: 10. Oh man was it lovely. Everything was just perfect.
Acting: 10. They’re all superb, but O’Toole reminded me particularly of many of the old people I’ve had to deal with in my time….
Story: 9. I’m giving it a nine because it doesn’t exactly have a substantial plot. It moves more on emotion, which I think is fantastic. But for whatever reason, it makes me lean more heavily on a nine. I suppose because that’s not always a suitable way to go in film, though it works wonderfully here.
Overall score: 9.66
A solid A. This is a movie for people who appreciate good movies. Go see it.


About emilydnelson

A recent graduate of Hofstra University with a B.A. in anthropology, Emily is like every other twenty-two year old on the planet - trying to figure out what the hell to do now. Follow as she struggles with writing, her social work job, and bopping from coast to coast.
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2 Responses to Film Review: Dean Spanley

  1. Excellent post today. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed it very much.

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  2. Pingback: The Undiscovered Country Quotaganza! | The Undiscovered Country

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