Friday, August 28, 2009

"Classic Fantasists on Film": Lord Dunsany's Dean Spanley

It was a surprise for me to learn recently that a novel by Lord Dunsany had been newly filmed, and even more of a surprise to learn that of Dunsany’s dozen or so novels it was My Talks with Dean Spanley (1936) that had made it to the big screen. By no means Dunsany’s best novel, it is an enjoyable, minor work, in which a cleric, under the influence of a certain tokay, recollects his previous incarnation as a dog.

The film, titled more simply Dean Spanley, was scripted by Alan Sharp and directed by Toa Fraser. It boasts a first rate cast: Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, and Bryan Brown. An independent British production, the film was released in England in December 2008, and had a limited release in the US a few months afterwards. The film has a running time of 98 minutes. It is now out on DVD in England (I don’t know if a North American release has yet been scheduled).

What a delight! It is frankly a skilful deepening and slight expansion of Dunsany’s novel, rather than merely a screenplay based upon it. Dunsany’s book is the first-person narration of an unnamed man, a scientific writer, who uses the tokay on Dean Spanley in the hope of learning the answers to some of the mysteries of life. To this end, the narrator gets help from his friend Wrather, and late in the book, the Maharajah of Haikwar. The pleasure of Dunsany’s novel is primarily to be found in the Dean’s uncanny revelations about the inner life of a dog.

Alan Sharp names the narrator Fisk (he is played by Jeremy Northam), and centers the story upon Fisk’s relationship with a new character, Fisk’s elderly father (Peter O’Toole), bringing in a familial and emotional center that is nowhere to be found in Dunsany’s novel. Sam Neill plays the difficult part of Dean Spanley excellently, and the screenplay utilizes many of Dunsany’s own words in the Dean’s reminiscences. The character of Wrather is also slightly altered—he becomes Fisk’s supplier of the tokay, as well as a participant in the experiment. Northam and Neill give first-rate performances, but it is Peter O’Toole who steals the show as the elder Fisk. O’Toole has most of the best lines, too (all original to the screenplay, not lifted from the novel). It is not merely for sentimental reasons that I hope that the film garners some award nominations for O’Toole’s acting and for Alan Sharp’s screenplay.

Dean Spanley is one of those quiet, enchanting little films that come along too infrequently. Keep your eye out for it.

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