Sunday, February 16, 2014

Streaming revelation: Toa Fraser & Alan Sharp's adaptation of Lord Dunsany's DEAN SPANLEY

One of those rare delights that you suddenly find dumped into your surprised lap via Netflix streaming, DEAN SPANLEY (or My Talks With Dean Spanley, as it is also called) is a splendid example of quiet British/New Zealand humor and character that slowly, delectably expands into one of the richest and most moving of movies. It is also, by the by, one of cinema's great dog stories -- not to mention perhaps the best piece of reincarnation folderol we've yet seen.

While it won't make a believer out of you, transmigration of souls-wise, it just might make you wish that you could believe -- so enchanting is its premise and so thoroughly brought to bursting life is the execution of that premise. This unusual film, directed by New Zealander Toa Fraser (shown at left) and adapted from one of the works of Ireland's Lord Dunsany by that very good late Scot screenwriter Alan Sharp (Ulzana's RaidNight Moves), sneaks up on you, promising to be one thing (on which it actually delivers) but then morphing into something quite else. I'd call it a genre-jumper, except that jumping is an activity far too energized for this quiet little charmer. Let's call it a genre-glider. In any case, it is very nearly sui generis.

Here we are in Edwardian England sometime after the second Boer War, as a "good son" (Jeremy Northam, above, left) pays his weekly visit to his seemingly semi-doddering dad (Peter O'Toole, above, right, in perhaps his best final-decade performance). Ah, we think: one of those little British gems of understatement, family and buried wit.

It is all of those. But wait: Then we head for a speaking engagement by a Swami (Art Malik), where father and son meet the oddly reclusive "Dean" of the title (a role the likes of which that talented actor Sam Neill, above, will surely never see again) and a very working-class chap (Bryan Brown, below, left) who says he is in the "conveyance business."

Slowly, with the help of some hard-to-come-by Hungarian Imperial Tokay wine, the plot thickens very slowly until we're neck deep in one of movieland's more fabulous dog stories. In its odd way, this one rivals Lassie on the one hand and My Dog Tulip on the other. I am not sure I have ever seen a film which captured as well as this one the dog's life from the POV of the dog itself.

We also learn, slowly and sweetly, just what the connection between these four men actually is, even as the movie tackles the relationship between fathers and sons, masters and, well, servants.... One of the servants here is played by the swell Judy Parfitt, whose final scene will bring a tear to your eye without even the tiniest bit of arm-twisting.

In fact, this forswearing of the over-bearing is the key to the movie's great success. Mr. Sharp, when given the opportunity, was one sharp, uncluttered writer, and Mr. Fraser has achieved exactly the right pace and tone so that the film unfurls as a kind of perfect blend of location, presentation and performance.

Where the hell did this wonderful movie come from? I'd never heard of it until I noticed it one recent day on Netflix streaming. The "distributor" (and I use the word loosely) may provide a clue. That would be Miramax, which, when Dean Spanley first appeared (end of 2008 into 2009), was undergoing a separation from Disney (a company it never should have "married" to begin with), and so the film -- much better and subtler than so much of the Disney stuff -- seems to have been buried in the shuffle that occurs when a distribution company moves from one owner to another, receiving neither a theatrical nor a timely DVD release here.

Well, it's got that "release" now via Netflix streaming, where it will no doubt pull in the huge cult following it so surely deserves. You can also find it on DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (I understand, from Wikipedia, that it has also been shown on cable TV at some point, so perhaps you were lucky enough to catch it there.)

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