It’s a dog’s past life in “Dean Spanley,” an immaculately cast, nicely handled and wafer-thin slice of Brit period-dress whimsy. Pic reps an odd sophomore feature choice for New Zealander Toa Fraser, whose big-hearted Maori family drama “No. 2” should have made more waves internationally. This effort will likely travel further due to thesp names, and it does have its peculiar charms. But it’s a talky, narrowly focused piece that feels like an after-dinner anecdote presented with the full ceremony of a formal meal. Pic will flit through theaters before finding more comfortable smallscreen berths.

In the Edwardian era, genteel Londoner Fisk Jr. (Jeremy Northam) resents his dreary obligation each Thursday: visiting his father, Fisk Sr. (Peter O’Toole), who refuses to acknowledge the tragic loss of his wife and other son, or indeed express any emotion beyond bullheadedness.

In an effort to find some diversion from their awkward companionship, the two end up at a swami‘s lecture on reincarnation. This proves singularly unilluminating. But it does provide an opportunity for the first of several chance encounters with Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), a peculiar, somewhat mysterious fellow who strongly piques Fisk Jr.’s curiosity.

Lured to dinner by Fisk Jr.’s promise of a rare liqueur, Spanley requires only a few sips before his stuffy conversation turns to something bizarre and fascinating — namely, his experiences in a prior life as a dog. These reminiscences are delivered with such detailed gusto they’re hard to discount as delusional.

O’Toole, in fine form, thaws most agreeably upon realizing he may have re-established an old friendship. Bryan Brown strikes some comic sparks as an agreeably rough-edged wheeler-dealer; Judy Parfitt adds tart notes as the old man’s exasperated but loyal housekeeper. Northam, onscreen and in voiceover narration, provides a gently reflective center amid more eccentric characters.

None is moreso than Spanley, whose gradually escalating expressions of hound-dog logic and enthusiasm are restrained, unpredictable and delightful.

Based on an obscure novel by late Anglo-Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany, Alan Sharp’s screenplay is deft; ditto Fraser’s helming. Yet the story remains so small that, despite the players’ excellence, “Dean Spanley” almost feels too slight for its medium. As an hourlong (even half-hour) prestige BBC item, it would be a little gem; on the bigscreen, it’s pleasant but stretched.

Modest rather than plush by period-pic standards, all tech contributions are solid.

Dean Spanley

New Zealand-U.K.

  • Production: A New Zealand Film Commission (New Zealand) presentation, in association with Screen East Content Investment Fund, Aramid Entertainment, Lip Synch Prods., of a Matthew Metcalfe/Atlantic Film Group (U.K.) production. (International sales: NZ Film, Wellington.) Produced by Matthew Metcalfe, Alan Harris. Executive producers, Finola Dwyer, David Parfitt, Simon Fawcett, Alan Sharp. Co-producer, Karl Zohrab. Directed by Toa Fraser. Screenplay, Alan Sharp, based on the novel "My Talks With Dean Spanley" by Lord Dunsany.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Leon Narbey; editor, Chris Plummer; music, Don McGlashan; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; art directors, Ben Smith, Ashley Turner; set decorator, Barbara Herman-Skelding; costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux; sound (Dolby Digital) Tony Dawe; assistant director, Stuart Renfrew. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala screening), Sept. 7, 2008. Running time: 100 MIN.
  • With: Fisk Jr. - Jeremy Northam Dean Spanley - Sam Neill Wrather - Bryan Brown Fisk Sr. - Peter O'Toole Mrs. Brimley - Judy Parfitt Swami Presh - Art Malik
  • Music By: