Dean Spanley

Dean Spanley is a 2008 British comedy drama film, with fantastic elements, from Miramax, Atlantic Film Group (UK) and General Film Corporation (NZ), directed by Fijian New Zealander Toa Fraser. Set in Edwardian England, the film is based on an Alan Sharp adaptation of Irish author Lord Dunsany's 1936 novella My Talks with Dean Spanley. It stars Sam Neill as the Dean, Jeremy Northam and Peter O'Toole as Fisk Junior and Fisk Senior respectively and Bryan Brown as Wrather.

Dean Spanley
Dean Spanley.jpg
UK quad format cinema poster
Directed byToa Fraser
Produced byMatthew Metcalfe
Alan Harris
Screenplay byAlan Sharp
Based onMy Talks with Dean Spanley
by Lord Dunsany
StarringJeremy Northam
Peter O'Toole
Sam Neill
Bryan Brown
Judy Parfitt
Dudley Sutton
Music byDon McGlashan
CinematographyLeon Narbey
Edited byChris Plummer
NZ Film Commission
Atlantic Film Group
General Film Corporation
Lipsync Productions
Distributed byIcon Entertainment International (UK)
Transmission (NZ)
Miramax (US)
TWC (international)
Release date
  • 6 September 2008 (2008-09-06) (Toronto)
  • 12 December 2008 (2008-12-12) (UK)
  • 26 February 2009 (2009-02-26) (NZ)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$15 million


The narrative is called "a surreal period comedic tale of canine reincarnation exploring the relationships between father and son and master and dog".[1] Peter O'Toole said that the film's use of comedy to explore the relationship between a father and son was part of the attraction for him: "All of us have had these difficult familial relationships and I think it's a film for all of us who understand the relationship between a father and son. It's been interesting watching how various members of the crew have been looking at the monitors during scenes, because they come up to me and say, 'I had the same thing with my father.'"[citation needed]


In the very early 1900s, Henslowe Fisk lives beholden to his father, the difficult Horatio Fisk. The Fisk family has suffered first the loss of its younger son, Harrington Fisk (Xavier Horan), killed in the Second Anglo-Boer War, shortly followed by the death of Horatio's wife. Fisk Senior is looked after by his housekeeper Mrs Brimley (Judy Parfitt) who has lost her husband. Fisk Junior reluctantly visits his father every Thursday.

One day, trying to entertain his father, Fisk Junior takes him to a lecture by a visiting swami (Art Malik) about the transmigration of souls. The lecture is also attended by the new local clergyman, Dean Spanley (Sam Neill).

Later the same day Fisk Junior encounters the Dean at his father's club. A chance third meeting leads to an introduction. Fisk Junior, initially intrigued by the Dean's oddly open-minded views on reincarnation, is prompted to look beyond the Dean's appearance (that of an affable, rather bland clergyman) by his weakness for certain peculiar sensations produced by Hungarian Imperial Tokay wine, which leads him into a dreamlike state. Working with his clever friend Wrather (Bryan Brown), an Australian "conveyancer", Fisk secures a batch of Tokay and the two entertain the Dean, who acts ever more strangely, starting to reveal memories of his previous life — as a Welsh Spaniel. These memories are acute and convincing, including rich feelings around food and communication with other canines, a deep distaste for cats and pigs, and the joy of serving his master. As the story unfolds, Fisk Junior comes to understand his father's background better and the two draw closer. There is a sub-plot concerning Fisk Senior's childhood that receives an unexpected resolution forming the climax of the story.




The novella was optioned from the Dunsany Will Trust through Curtis Brown of London by Alan Sharp.[2] Support for the production came from both English (Screen East) and New Zealand (NZ Film Commission) government agencies, with financing completed by Aramid Entertainment, General Film Corporation and Lipsync Productions. Both producers, the director, some of the lead cast (Neill was born in Northern Ireland but is associated with New Zealand), the cinematographer, the editor, the composer and a number of other members of the production crew and cast are from New Zealand.


The adapted screenplay was written by Alan Sharp, with clearance from the Dunsany Literary Estate. Trevor Johnston has written, "If you read the original story before seeing the film ..., then see the film, what’s striking is that Sharp has not so much effected an adaptation as a reinvention."[3]


Principal filming began at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire (including Wisbech Castle and Peckover House) on 10 November 2007, continuing for some weeks and taking in the heritage area of the Crescent, the Castle and the museum. It continued at Holkham Hall in Norfolk[4] and Elveden Hall in Suffolk, once home to and remodelled for the last Maharajah of Punjab in the years just before the film's setting. Elm Hill in Norwich and the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral were also used.[5][6] Further filming took place in New Zealand.


The movie was shot on 16 mm film and digitally, in 1:1.85 ratio, using Arri 416 and D-20 cameras, with digital intermediate post-production by Lipsync Productions.[7]


An original soundtrack was composed by New Zealand composer Don McGlashan. A soundtrack CD was released in New Zealand on Warner Music (NZ) 5186531802 consisting of 14 tracks and a running time of 41:05. Background choir music was provided by the 30-voice New Zealand choir Musica Sacra.[8]

Release and receptionEdit

Ahead of general release, Dean Spanley was shown twice at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a red-carpet gala premiere, the first New Zealand production ever to do so.[9] It also had two showings at the London Film Festival, and was also shown at the largest film festival in Asia, the Pusan International.

The United Kingdom general release was announced by Icon Distribution for 12 December, and a "U" classification issued by the British Board of Film Classification.[10] In Ireland it was certified "G" and was released on the same date. The film was certified in Australia as "G" also, and was released 5 March 2009, and in New Zealand 26 February 2009; distribution in both Australia and New Zealand was by Paramount.

In early November, the film was offered to United States distributors at the annual American Film Market (5–12 November), with two showings announced, and in early February 2009, Miramax bought the United States rights.[11] However, rather than opening in theatres in the U.S., it went straight to cable.

A region-2 DVD was released in 2009.[12] A region-1 DVD was released in 2010.[13]

The novella, out of print for some years, was re-issued from HarperCollins in 2008. It included the film screenplay, set photos, publicity stills and interviews and comments from the cast, director, producers and crew members.

Critical responseEdit

Receiving a standing ovation at the gala premiere, initial commentary was positive (per reviews at and elsewhere), with particular praise for O'Toole's performance and the final "act".

Reviews were generally positive, Rotten Tomatoes website gives the film a rating of 85% "fresh" based on 26 reviews. The critical consensus describes the film as "Offbeat, whimsical, period-set shaggy dog story with daffy performances from Sam Neill and Peter O’Toole."[14]

Dean Spanley was longlisted for the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards for Adapted Screenplay (Alan Sharp) and Supporting Actor (Peter O'Toole).[15]


  1. ^ Village Film Festival[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ Margaret Pomeranz speaking with Sam Neill. "Dean Spanley Interview". At the Movies. Season 6. Episode 4. 4 March 2009.
  3. ^ Johnston, Trevor (13 January 2009). "Dean Spanley". The Script Factory. Archived from the original on 13 August 2010. Retrieved 21 October 2010. Trevor Johnston is a film critic for Time Out London.
  4. ^ Joe Utichi (29 January 2008). "Exclusive: RT Visits the Set of Dean Spanley. We talk the transmigration of souls with Peter O'Toole and Sam Neill". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. p. 2.
  5. ^ Norwich, Norfolk: 18 December 2007, Norwich Evening News (Kate Scotter)
  6. ^ Wisbech, Cambs: The Fenland Citizen, 21 November 2007: Hollywood Comes to Wisbech
  7. ^ IMDb Technical Specifications for Dean Spanley
  8. ^ "Musica Sacra records for film score". Film Score. Musica Sacra (Auckland). Archived from the original on 25 May 2010.
  9. ^ "Toronto Gala world premiere for Dean Spanley".[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ "DEAN SPANLEY rated U by the BBFC". British Board of Film Classification. Archived from the original on 20 March 2012.
  11. ^ Miramax buys US rights to Dean Spanley
  12. ^ Dean Spanley (DVD). Icon Home Entertainment. 27 April 2009.
  13. ^ "Dean Spanley".
  14. ^ Rotten Tomatoes: Dean Spanley Accessed 10 May 2010
  15. ^ Alt Film Guide

External linksEdit