DEAN SPANLEY: Peter O’Toole, Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Judy Parfitt. Directed by Toa Fraser. Rated G.
WHAT a pleasant surprise. For those who like their films visually appealing and literate, intelligent and delightful, this will be a most satisfying entertainment.
It is G-rated though it is not a children’s film.
The screenplay is an imaginative expansion by Alan Sharp (Rob Roy) of a small novel of 1936 by Lord Dunsany.
The book – My Talks with Dean Spanley – is principally conversations between the narrator of the novel and the Anglican dean who comes to dinner to discuss reincarnation.
Filmed principally in Britain in locations that recreate the Edwardian period in London and in the countryside (with some interiors and scenes filmed in New Zealand), the director is playwright Toa Frazer, whose previous film, No 2, set in Auckland, acknowledged his Fijian heritage, while this film acknowledges his British ancestry.
Jeremy Northam is expert at playing genial British suave.
It is 1904, his brother has been killed in the Boer War and his widowed father, typically tyrannical with the world revolving round him, lives alone though he has an extremely patient housekeeper (Judy Parfitt). His son visits him every Thursday.
They see an ad in the paper for a talk on reincarnation and go to listen.
At this stage, one should say that the father is played by Peter O’Toole at his very best, amazing to listen to and a master class to watch.
He has some wonderful lines delivered with unconsciously arrogant panache (especially when he wakes up at the end of the lecture and responds to “Any questions?”).
Father and son meet two characters at the talk, one a brash colonial who is a dealer, able to track down and negotiate whatever one needs.
He is played (and spoken) by Bryan Brown as Bryan Brown, always a pleasure with his Aussie ironic humour and kindness.
The other is the rather humourless Dean Spanley, played straight by Sam Neill, especially when we and the others get to know him. He has more than a passing interest in reincarnation – which involves another life as a dog.
The conversations are interesting and entertaining and, when Peter O’Toole turns up for a meal and becomes involved in the Dean’s story, the film becomes quite moving, especially in the father finally acknowledging that one son has died and the other has devoted himself to him.
No special effects, no action sequences, just a delight for ear and eye, for the emotions and for the mind.