Monday, March 2, 2015

Dunsany on Netflix

The movie I was most glad to get streaming Netflix for was a puzzlingly obscure 2008 film called Dean Spanley, which at least at the time was not available on disc, at least not on Netflix. Its obscurity is puzzling because of its glittering and high-powered cast: Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Peter O'bloody-Toole. But I didn't want to watch it until I'd had a chance to re-read the book. Now I have.

Doug Anderson first alerted me to the movie's existence. It's not, strictly speaking, the only film adaptation of Lord Dunsany, but it is the only feature-length one, and the only one of a novel, if the brief My Talks with Dean Spanley can be called a novel. The story's narrator, evidently the author himself, recounts meeting a respectable CoE dean whom he finds, when plied with just the right amount of his favorite tipple, will start recounting tales from his previous life as a dog, though he's easily snapped out of it and doesn't remember saying anything the next day. What makes this slight notion work on the page is the brilliance of Dunsany's evocation of the dog's perspective.

Screenwriter Alan Sharp has craftily expanded this into a full-scale drama of character, though it's still very inward and would require little change to work as a stage play. It's set around 1905-10, just after the Boer War whose losses cast a pall over the tale. The characters are considerably fleshed out, and the story around them made fuller and more sturdy.

The narrator becomes a hesitant but inwardly passionate youngish man named Henslowe Fisk (Northam, well-cast for it) who attends a boring lecture by an Indian swami on reincarnation for lack of anything better to do that day. Curiosity as to why a clergyman would also attend a talk on such a heretical topic is what makes him invite Spanley (Neill) to dinner, and knowledge of Spanley's taste for Tokay (a Hungarian dessert wine, which the movie tells you though Dunsany assumes you've heard of it) is what causes Fisk to claim possession of a rare bottle of it as bait.

Then he has to get the wine, and this is what brings Wrather fully into the story. In the book, he's just a guy whom the narrator invites as an extra guest to one dinner in hopes that will further loosen the dean's tongue, only to have to keep shushing him from making crass remarks that throw Spanley out of his trance. In the movie, Wrather is still bumptious but less oafish. He's an Australian, played by Bryan Brown (you know, the guy from F/X, remember that movie?), and he's a more than slightly shady "conveyancer" of odd goods ("this carpet fell off an elephant") who, yeah, has a bottle or two of rare Tokay lying around.

That leaves the major plot thread that's entirely new to the movie, which is Fisk's relationship with his father, an appallingly - but hilariously - crotchety old man played wonderfully by Peter O'Toole in one of his last roles (this film came after Venus). How Sharp folds this into the tale of the dean and the dinners, and makes them the old man's redemption and the reconciliation of the difficult father-son relationship is:
1) pretty bog-standard and psychologically facile;
2) telegraphed long before the end;
3) telegraphed even long before that if you've read the book; but also
4) far better than Dunsany's deflationary ending, where the narrator and his friends get the dean really drunk so that he reveals all the secrets dogs know that humans don't, but get so drunk themselves they can't remember it the next day either;
5) heart-breakingly performed by O'Toole.

Neill also, in the impossible role of a man standing around talking about being a dog, does very well. In an interview, he said that the part terrified him, but that Brown, a friend of his, basically threatened him into taking it. I would only criticize the script slightly; Sharp's version of the tales have less the authentic canine air than Dunsany's.

But this is a production that proves you can make a great movie about four men talking if the four men are played by good enough actors and have a good enough script to use. (There's one important woman as well, Judy Parfitt as old Fisk's housekeeper.) The screenplay is a rare case of an adaptation of a good book that's better than the original (that makes four that I know of). The pacing and editing are largely excellent. The cinematography, particularly the few outdoor shots, is beautiful and intensely period. The music is also good though not period; I was amused that one theme is described in the closed caption as "tuba music" though the instrument playing is actually a bass clarinet.

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