Dir. Toa Fraser. New Zealand/UK. 2008. 99mins.

New Zealand director Toa Fraser’s Dean Spanley overcomes an uncertain and sketchy opening section to register as a moving and visually wondrous evocation of magic and imagination. The movie’s tonal shifts are fairly abrupt and the first third is frustratingly undeveloped dramatically, but the director holds the whimsy and sentiment in check.

Perhaps most importantly, Fraser allows a group of first-rate actors to get lost in the reveries and fantastic elements of the storytelling. Adapted from a 1936 novella by Baron Dunsany, the movie is almost impossible to classify. It collates the George Orwell of Animal Farm, Lewis Carroll’s fiendishly imaginative fiction and Craig Lucas’s play Prelude to a Kiss. Fraser’s relative inexperience handicaps him from time to time though Alan Sharp’s script helps override the rough parts.

Commercially, the hybrid nature of the material makes its theatrical potential somewhat problematic. It comes across as too elusive and strange for children and a tad too fantastic and mysterious for adults. The strong ensemble cast provides a good hook in English-speaking markets, particularly the ancillaries.

The movie’s premise requires a considerable leap of imagination. Set in Edwardian England at the turn of the 20th century, the story swirls around the compacted and often sour relationship between Henslowe Fisk (Northam) and his cantankerous, aging father (O’Toole). A lecture on the ‘transmigration of souls,’ initiates a series of seemingly spontaneous encounters between the younger Fisk and the title character Spanley (Neill), a local religious authority.

Under the almost spectral influence of a rare, Hapsburg brandy, Spanley reveals a succession of mysterious stories about his background that the younger Fisk increasingly believes connects him to his own family’s rather tortured background. Though the connection is predicated on the absurd, the younger Fisk conspires to ascertain the validity of these wild claims with his father and an Australian black marketer (Brown).

Dean Spanley is a fairly rare work that improves as its blend of the fantastic and mysterious take hold in the second half. Neill is such an invigorating performer that his stories (related visually in bright and sunny flashbacks of Leon Narbey’s colourful cinematography) gain a piquancy, tenderness and depth of emotion that propel the work into deeper and ungovernable realms of the exalted and fantastic.

Production companies
Atlantic Film
General Film Corporation

International sales agent
NZ Film

Executive producers
Finola Dwyer
David Parfitt
Simon Fawcett
Alan Sharp

Matthew Metcalfe
Alan Harris

Alan Sharp
From the novella by Lord Dunsany

Leon Narbey

Jeremy Northam
Sam Neill
Bryan Brown
Peter O’Toole
Judy Parfitt
Art Malik