Dean Spanley

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Where is Monty Python's Flying Circus when you really need that comedy group? "Dean Spanley," based on a 1936 novella and set in Edwardian England, is about a father and son's encounter with a clergyman who claims a past life as -- are you ready? -- their dog. This is, unfortunately, treated as a serious, emotional drama. What's more, look at this cast -- Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Byron Brown and Peter O'Toole! Crikey, what was everybody thinking?

"Dean Spanley" is the kind of film that emerges when a government agency -- the New Zealand Film Commission in this case -- and other regional development funds put together a relatively low-budget project where no one has to worry about commercial appeal. Film festivals will be most understanding but distributors who want to make money will not.

The film's narrator, Henslowe Fisk (Northam), and his aged father Horatio (O'Toole) lost Henslowe's brother in the Boer War and then his mother to grief. One day the younger man encounters Dean Spanley (Neill), who after two glasses of his favorite Tokay sweet wine, relates his recollections of a past life as a dog named Wag.

Strange, the Fisk family's faithful spaniel was named Wag. Only he ran off and never returned. The Fisks eventually discover why thanks to the tipsy churchman. And this somehow inspires the old man finally to give in to his grief over losing a son.

Under Toa Fraser's direction, working from a script by Alan Sharp, this is all done with the greatest solemnity within finely upholstered rooms where everyone is stuffed impeccably into period costumes. For all the uproarious nonsense of the story -- or "poppycock" to use Horatio's favorite expression -- the effect on audiences is positively sleep inducing.

Production companies: The New Zealand Film Commission in association with Screen East Content Investment Fund/Aramid Entertainment/Lip Sync Productions present a Matthew Metcalfe/Atlantic Film Group production
Cast: Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, Byron Brown, Peter O'Toole, Judy Parfitt, Art Malik.
Director: Toa Fraser.
Screenwriter: Alan Sharp.
Based on a novel by: Baron Dunsany.
Producers: Matthew Metcalfe, Alan Harris.
Executive producers: Finola Dwyer, David Parfitt, Simon Fawcell, Alan Sharp.
Director of photography: Leon Narbey.
Production designer: Andrew McAlpine.
Music: Don McGlashan.
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux.
Editor: Chris Plummer.
Sales: NZ Film.
No rating, 100 minutes.

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