Charming film depicts “novel” reincarnation
I recently discovered Dean Spanley, a 2008 British film that is my second favorite metaphysical movie in recent years (after What Dreams May Come). This delightful gem of a film moved me in ways reminiscent of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.
Story: Dean Spanley is the very archetype of a bland churchman: affable, conventional, prudent without being a prig. Only his keen interest in the transmigration of souls and almost excessive enthusiasm for dogs betray any shadow of eccentricity. And then, richly primed with a few glasses of Imperial Tokay, he slips over the threshold between past and present and remembers an unusual reincarnation. Or are his memories no more than fancy? (from Amazon)
My take: Starring Sam Neill as the Dean, this adaptation of Irish author Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley illustrates with great clarity and joy the inner life of the Dean’s previous incarnation as a dog. The lush yet restrained camera work of Fiji/New Zealand director Toa Fraser paint his rich memories vividly and poignantly, set to New Zealand composer Don McGlashan’s stirring score.
Through the character played with wide-eyed brilliance by Peter O’Toole, we learn that, despite decades of grief and sorrow, one is capable of change; one can again experience joy. And that’s a message worth watching.
Although longlisted for the 2009 Orange British Film Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay (Alan Sharp) and Supporting Actor (Peter O’Toole), the film went straight to cable in the U.S. (thank gods for Netflix).
Sweeping vistas, dotted with sheep that pop straight up like panicked cats, immerse you in the sense of what it may have been like to roam free across the woods and fields of turn-of-the-century England. In dignified, stately language appropriate for a Dean of Divinity, Mr. Stanley recounts his memories of those magical days, his grasp of time loosened by a glass of Tokay: “ . . . And then we slept, that most divine of states. The dream dreams you, rather than the other way round.”
Gentle motifs wend through the story, such as “’It’s the little things that try us,’ said the man of the pygmy judge,” along with Zen—and yet thoroughly British—observations: “There’s no point to regretting things that have gone to the trouble of happening.” These asides thread the story with dry humor and wisdom that viewers greet with both a smile and a nod of affirmation.
Just when you think the story has reached a most illuminating and satisfying conclusion, it continues on for a few more beats, culminating with an unexpected twist and a sentiment that I agree with most heartily: “As to the question of reincarnation, I resolved to wait and see, albeit with more anticipation than hitherto.”
Dean Spanley, an adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley
Miramax Films, Atlantic Film Group (UK) and General Film Corporation (NZ), 2008
Running time: 100 minutes