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Dean Spanley
Directed by Toa Fraser
Produced by Matthew Metcalfe
Alan Harris
Written by Novel
Lord Dunsany
Alan Sharp
Starring Jeremy Northam
Peter O'Toole
Sam Neill
Bryan Brown
Judy Parfitt
Dudley Sutton
Jenna Pollard
Music by Don McGlashan
Cinematography Leon Narbey
Editing by Chris Plummer
Distributed by Miramax Films
Release date(s) Toronto International Film Festival
September 6, 2008 (2008-09-06)
United Kingdom
December 12, 2008
New Zealand
February 26, 2009
Running time 100 minutes
Country New Zealand
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $15 million

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



The screenplay is an adaptation of fantasy author Lord Dunsany's My Talks with Dean Spanley, a 14-chapter novella published in 1936. It is set in Edwardian England.

The narrative is called "a surreal period comedic tale of canine reincarnation exploring the relationships between father and son and master and dog". 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.'"



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

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

Later the same day he sees the Dean at his father's club. A chance third meeting leads to an introduction. Fisk Junior is intrigued by the Dean's oddly open-minded views on reincarnation and getting beyond the appearance 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 large 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.




The novella was optioned from the Dunsany Will Trust through Curtis Brown of London by Alan Sharp and his production partner Matthew Metcalfe, the latter of whom first discovered the book.[1] 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 now 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.


Led by Daniel Hubbard, the studio cast leading talent Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown and Peter O'Toole, along with a range of experienced actors.


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, while another setting was 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 with its mixture of medieval, Tudor, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, as used in the Dunsanyesque box-office success Stardust, as well as Norwich Cathedral cloisters[2][3]. Further filming took place in New Zealand.


Filmed in 35mm colour, in 1:1.85 ratio, with high-definition, Arri 416 and D-20 cameras were used, with digital internediate post-production by Lipsync Productions[4].

Release and reception

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[5]. It also had two showings at the London Film Festival, one attended by the cast and closing with a standing ovation. Dean Spanley was also shown at the largest film festival in Asia, the Pusan International.

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".

UK general release (probably limited) was announced by Icon Distribution for 12 December, and a "U" classification issued by the BBFC; in Ireland it was certified "G" and goes on release on the same date. The film has been certified in Australia as "G" also, for release on 5 March 2009, and in New Zealand is released 26 February 2009; distribution in both Australia and New Zealand is by Paramount.

Reviews continued generally positive, and the film was, at February 2009, rated 80% "fresh" (positive) at the review aggregator site.

In early November, the film was offered to USA distributors at the annual American Film Market (5–12 November), with two showings announced, and in early February 2009, Miramax bought the USA rights[6].

Dean Spanley was longlisted for the 2009 Orange British Film Academy Awards (BAFTAs) for Adapted Screenplay (Alan Sharp) and Supporting Actor (Peter O'Toole).


An original soundtrack was composed by New Zealand composer Don McGlashan. No announcement has yet been made on CD or online releases. Background choir music was provided by the 30-voice New Zealand choir Musica Sacra[7].


Official websites exist for the UK & Ireland ([3]) and Australia and New Zealand ([4]).

DVD releases

DVD releases are expected in 2009.

Accompanying releases

  • Reissue of the novella (out of print for some years) from HarperCollins, with screenplay, set photos, publicity stills, cast interviews, and interviews and comments from the director, producers and crew members - released in the UK 3 November 2008, and due in the USA.


  1. ^ Margaret Pomeranz speaking with Sam Neill. "Dean Spanley Interview". At the Movies. 2009-03-04. No. 4, season 6.
  2. ^ Norwich, Norfolk: 18 December 2007, Norwich Evening News (Kate Scotter)
  3. ^ Wisbech, Cambs: The Fenland Citizen, 21 November 2007: Hollywood Comes to Wisbech
  4. ^ [1] IMDB Technical Specifications for Dean Spanley (and other pages)
  5. ^ [2] Toronto Gala world premiere for Dean Spanley
  6. ^ Miramax buys US rights to Dean Spanley
  7. ^ Musica Sacra records for film score.

External links


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