Among Dunsany's extensive literary output there is a strange and beguiling little novella entitled My Talks With Dean Spanley. This (literally) shaggy dog story concerns a clergyman, the eponymous Dean, who when plied with an appropriately expensive wine — Imperial Tokay — recalls his past life as a dog. It's a charming, oddball little tale.
And it had the great good fortune to fall into the hands of Alan Sharp, the magnificent Scottish screenwriter (Night Moves, Rob Roy). Sadly, Sharp died recently and there are numerous interviews, retrospectives, obituaries and tributes worth reading and a lot to be said about him, including this splendid one. I need to write about him at length myself. But right now we're concentrating on a drunken cleric and his life as a dog.
Alan Sharp loved the novella and developed it into a short (50 page) screenplay, purely for his own pleasure. He thought it might be a one-off TV show. But there were no takers. Then a producer called Matthew Metcalfe discovered the script and encouraged him to expand it to feature film length. No easy task. Dunsany's scant tale is just a series of dinner conversations. "There wasn't enough leg to fill the stocking," as Sharp put it. A "whole new plot" had to be added and attached to the original.
Sharp's brilliant solution — with Metcalfe's help and encouragement — was to invent for the narrator (played by Jeremy Northam) a troubled relationship with his father (Peter O'Toole), an emotionally shut down man who won't even grieve for his other son, recently killed in the Boer War.
The only trace of feeling in the bitter old man is his love for his dog Wag, who inexplicably disappeared when he was a small boy. Sharp weaves the old and new strands together by leading us to the discovery that the former incarnation of Dean Spanley (wonderfully played by Sam Neill) was that very dog.
When O'Toole finally learns, through Spanley, that Wag never came home because he was shot by a farmer, he is suddenly able to grieve both for his lost dog and his lost son. (The film's editor, Chris Plummer, came up with the beautiful notion of inter-cutting the shooting of the dog with the shooting of the son — a stroke of genius, and very characteristic of a film editor.)
And so the father is able to come to terms with loss and also to movingly connect again with his living son...
Although he himself conceived these powerfully affecting additions to Dunsany's whimsical original, Alan Sharp was worried whether the expanded script would work.
It was, he said, like "introducing Chekov into Gilbert and Sullivan." He needn't have worried.
The film is a masterpiece and deeply effective, thanks in no small part to its top-drawer cast. Dean Spanley is full of delightful characters brought to life by top actors, such as the wheeler-dealer Wrather — a great name, as is Spanley, come to think of it — played by Bryan Brown.
Full credit is also due to production designer Andrew McAlpine, cinematographer Leon Narbey, editor Chris Plummer, the aforementioned producer Matthew Metcalfe and above all the gifted director Toa Fraser.
"Sometimes you get lucky," said Alan Sharp. You certainly do.
Dean Spanley is a gem of a film, lovingly crafted and very touching, and you must see it.
Some clever soul also thought to reprint the Dunsany novella complete with the Alan Sharp script and some excellent articles about making the film, as a movie tie-in. If you can find a copy (regrettably, it's become a somewhat pricey collector's item), you should grab one.
(Image credits: The poster of Sam Neill and the dog is from Media Fire. The book cover with the red band is from ABE, where you can buy the book if you have deep pockets. The cover without the red band is from an excellent blog about the book and film. The DVD cover is from Movie Talk. The image of the Dean (Sam Neill) sipping ecstatically is from Vimeo, where there is a trailer for the film. The happy doggie image is from Netflix.)