Seeing the promise of a delightful figure to engage with, Fisk Jr. works about procuring bottles of Imperial Tokay from Wrather to entertain and talk with Dean Spanley. The treacly wine is an acquired taste, but for the Dean, his voracious sniffing of the wine is joined by his remark that ‘the aroma of Tokay is more unique and important than the taste itself’. The consumption of the wine becomes a small art, with the pourer needing to leave ample room for the aroma to linger for the drinker to absorb.
It’s with these talks with Dean Spanley that Fisk Jr. gradually comes to realise for himself that the Dean is a dog reincarnated as a man, a fact that should not come as a surprise to Fisk Jr. given the Swami called the Dean ‘Wag’: Walter Arthur Grahame Spanley. Again, this is not a subtle film, but nor should it be.
Across three dinners with the Dean, Fisk Jr. slowly introduces more guests, with Wrather appearing at the second dinner. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown are real life close friends, with the two having appeared in countless films together across their respective careers. It’s no surprise then that both Dean Spanley and Wrather were canine friends in a previous life, a note that is made all the more joyously obvious when the two meet. Their first encounter is like a grand dance, sourcing each other out, almost sniffing the air to gather each others stories.
While Dean Spanley may not be an actors showcase, it is a charming delight to watch four exemplary actors working together seamlessly. Peter O’Toole sits in the cranky old man role comfortably, allowing a glint of joy and charm to slip by his eyes every so often. He’s matched wonderfully by Jeremy Northam who responds to O’Toole’s caustic remarks as if he were his own son. Bryan Brown is an equal delight, slinging his Aussie accent around with great comfort and joy, and bouncing off Sam Neill, O’Toole, and Northam, as if they were having a round at the local pub.
But for Dean Spanley to thrive and survive in my mind for so long, it needed the delectable performance from Sam Neill to help it linger. Never before has someone delighted themselves and the audience so proudly with a performance as a dog. There is nothing obvious about his performance as Wags, with Neill instead relishing in the matter-of-fact mannerisms of day to day life of dog life.
Under the persuasion of alcohol, Spanley is transported to a life he once lived, remarking on the obvious nature of dogs and their relationship to humans. He openly answers questions from the probing Fisk Jr. and Wrather, with the two gradually learning aspects of a dogs life. How does one communicate? The importance of smelling each others scent left on a pole is akin to a deep conversation with a close friend, and to be yanked away by a master all too soon is to deny open discussion.
With films about animals, it’s easy to anthropomorphise their behaviours, to falsely attribute quirks and beliefs about how they interact with each other and humans, yet for Dean Spanley, there’s something profoundly moving about the depiction of a dogs mind here. It’s respectful, cautious, and acts as a guiding force. Neill’s performance helps immensely with this, but Alan Sharp’s script, adapted from Baron Dunsany’s novel My Talks with Dean Spanley, is equally forthright and delicate, making Dean Spanley a pure joy to listen to.
So often humans explain how a dog is feeling; after all, they cannot communicate with us directly. Yet, within Dean Spanley, this open dialogue between man and his dog becomes overwhelming with its importance and familiarity. As a dog owner myself, I have continually found myself in discussions with my dogs, talking about their day, my day, how we’re feeling, and what we want to do together. Sure, they cannot answer, but their reactions and implicit companionship helps build a bond that is stronger than any I’ve ever felt.
The deepest bonds I’ve had in my life have been with my dogs. I have been in love, I have had friends who have mattered more than others, I have been married and divorced, I have found love again, and I’ve found the joy of becoming an uncle to a beautiful niece and nephew. I adore and love those relationships completely, and value them beyond belief.
Yet, the yearning, enduring relationship of spending your life with a canine companion is one that no human companion can match. I don’t write that to dismiss the relationships I’ve had in my life, but rather to accentuate the difference between a bond between a human and a dog. There’s something genuinely unique and special about that kind of companionship, and it’s within Dean Spanley that that relationship, in its purest form, is depicted.
Fisk Sr. lost his dog Wags at a young age, and well into his senior years, he has never had another dog. The final half hour of Dean Spanley has Neill’s titular character retelling the fateful day that separated the two from each other. Fisk Sr. had gone off to school, a painful event for any dog as they have to watch their master disappear with no knowledge of where they have gone, and worse, when they will return. For dog owners, the daily ache of leaving our pups at home by themselves is one that we learn to live with.
With Fisk Sr. out of sight, Wags goes to the front of the house and talks with his stray dog friend – presumed to be Wrather -, and in an act of delight and frivolity, the two embark on a rapturous journey across the land. They chase and frolic with horses and sheep, bathing themselves in the scent of fear and joy that billows off these magnificent creatures in waves. They stalk and hunt a rabbit, devouring its terrified body.
As night falls, they bark and howl at the moon, doing their best to chase this foreign entity away from the premises they must protect. With the intention of returning home in their minds, they turn towards where they need to go, and are instead met with a disgruntled, rifle holding farmer.
As Neill intimately retells this story, accentuating the highs with applicable fervour, and the downs with difficult sadness, O’Toole’s eyes flitter with a lifetime of bonds and companionships that have filtered throughout his long life. In this moment, he is not Fisk Sr., but instead, Peter O’Toole, revisiting a life lived with all its glories. Knowing the fate that fell upon Wags and his friend, Fisk Sr. leans forward and asks about the death itself, to which Dean Spanley replies:
One moment you are running along, the next you are no more.
The weight of grief is sometimes so powerfully insurmountable that we cannot know what to do with it. For Fisk Sr., a son going off to war carries an air of expected loss, a preparation for death. For children, there is the expectation that they will outlive their parents, and the understanding that loss and grief is in their future. When that does not happen, the grief can transform someone to become an incomplete self, a shadow of who they were. The comparison between the loss of Fisk Sr.’s son and the loss of his dog is brutally stark. One he accepted the moment his son went off to war, the other he never grappled with.