Easily one of the most beguiling, charming and addictive films of recent times, Dean Spanley is a movie you will grow to love.
The story is simple and effective: following the recent death of his mother, our narrator, Henslowe Fisk (Jeremy Northam), is paying regular visits to his curmudgeonly father, Horatio (Peter O’Toole). The two men have an uneasy relationship, in part caused by the loss of Henslowe’s brother in the Boer War. In an attempt to make his weekly visit more interesting, Fisk Junior takes his father to a lecture on the Transmigration of Souls, given by a visiting Hindu Swami (Art Malik). There they are intrigued to meet clergyman Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and Wrather (Bryan Brown) a Mr Fix-It who always knows the right people to know.
Fisk Junior strikes up a hesitant friendship with the Dean that is maintained by regular dinner engagements and the consistent provision of a rare Hungarian wine – Imperial Tokay, courtesy of Wrather – that rather seems to take the Dean out of himself. As the Dean’s under-the-influence reminiscences become more bizarre, Fisk Junior realises they might just hold the secret to mending his father’s broken heart and rebuilding their own friendship.
Though the roots of the story lie in Edwardian England (Lord Dunsany writing the original novella in the 1900s), having a director from New Zealand and stars from Australia and New Zealand give the film a less tangible sense of place; and the movie benefits from inhabiting this enigmatic landscape, as it provides an evocative atmosphere. This other-wordly aspect helps to produce a film that builds slowly – almost defiantly so – towards its conclusion. Along the way there is plenty of time for a set of great acting performances, most obviously from Peter O’Toole but perhaps more subtlely from Sam Neil.What makes Dean Spanley so special is its melt in the mouth quality. You enjoy it at first but the longer you stay with it the more rich and beautiful it becomes. For audiences who fall in love with it – and it is undeniably a sentimental film – that fall will be the most warm and wonderful journey. For those who don’t love it … well, bah humbug to you!
EXTRAS ** Just a making-of featurette and interviews with cast members Neill, Brown, Northam and O'Toole, and director Fraser.