In Edwardian times, Mr Fisk (Jeremy Northam) was still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his brother in the Boer War, and following that the death of his mother, left heartbroken as a result. His father (Peter O'Toole), however, offered no support, taking a callously pragmatic approach to the tragedies which left his son feeling all the more bereft, thinking that if his parent showed any emotion about the events it would provide a great comfort to him. But that was not to be, as every Thursday he would visit him and every Thursday come away more depressed than he was before...
Dean Spanley was drawn by veteran Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp from the story by Lord Dunsany, a prolific author of odd, often fantastical tales which only rarely reached the screen: René Clair's semi-classic adaptation of It Happened Tomorrow was his biggest contribution to the movies before this. Thus it was rather unfashionable of Sharp and his director Toa Fraser to bring a story to the twenty-first century that was defiantly old-fashioned and made no secret of its respect for the style of yarn which few were clamouring to return to, even if they tried it and discovered Dunsany's fiction was surprisingly enjoyable.
Certainly the plot began at a snail's pace, and looked unpromising for its opening half hour as stuffy Englishmen failed to find a bond between father and son, but the groundwork for an unexpected revelation was being laid in that lengthy introduction. So Fisk Junior noticed an advertisement in the newspaper to announce the visit of an Indian mystic (Art Malik) who was to give a talk on the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation as it was more commonly called. Fisk Senior is coaxed into going along, and while they are there, although he falls asleep, they do meet the Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) of the title, and a curious relationship arises.
So what has been what looks to be ideal viewing for a Sunday evening when there's nothing else on gradually turned far stranger and more eccentric when Fisk Junior realises that a drop of the Dean's favourite alcholic tipple, the Hungarian wine Tokay which is very hard to come by seeing as how it has Royal connections and is therefore expensive, will send the man into a curious reverie where it appears he recalls being a dog in a past life. Wait, this sounds ridiculous, right? Well, yes, it does, but such a careful atmosphere to nurture this unlikely narrative has been fostered that you do accept it, and the frankly absurd notions that the characters begin to believe themselves.
The old man used to have a dog, you see, and he was of the opinion that it was one of the "Seven Great Dogs of the World" so just about the only mourning he had ever done was all those years ago when the beloved pet vanished one day and never came back. As his son gets the Dean to talk more and reminisce in an apparent near-trance brought on by the scent of the Tokay, he starts to realise it wasn't any old pooch he thinks he used to be, but... ah, you're ahead of me, yet there was more to this than a shaggy dog story although that's precisely what it was. The film investigated what it was that brought out the softer side in uptight men, not only of the Edwardian variety, so dog lovers would appreciate the interludes where Spanley rhapsodises over how wonderful it was to be a cherished hound - the flashbacks are filmed in rich, colourful hues in contrast to the chilly contemporary scenes, and anyone who has had trouble with a distant parent would find the way this resolved itself unexpectedly sweet and moving. Out of time in a way, but oddly timeless too. Music by Don McGlashan.