Dean Spanley tipped for Oscar

With a stellar cast including Peter O'Toole, the offbeat comedy drama Dean Spanley, which was filmed in the region, is already being tipped for Oscar nomination.

Dean Spanley is an Edwardian curiosity of a film. On paper it's a bizarre premise.

Literally a shaggy dog story, it's the tale of a man of the cloth reminiscing about his canine former life. On screen, however, it is one of this year's most original and heart-warming films.

Filmed almost entirely on location in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, its cast includes the legendary Peter O'Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam and Bryan Brown.

Written by Alan Sharp, the film is based on the 1936 novella My Talks With Dean Spanley, by Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany. When curmudgeonly widower Horatio Fisk (O'Toole) and his son Henslowe (Northam) attend a lecture on reincarnation by a visiting Hindu Swami (Art Malik), it leads to an encounter with the mysterious Dean Spanley (Neill).

At dinner, after a couple of glasses the rare Hungarian dessert wine Imperial Tokay, the Dean starts to have some odd recollections about a former life, which, in the end, prove cathartic for father and son.

While it has a U certificate, the dialogue-driven film is definitely aimed at an adult audience.

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The script fizzes with witty one- liners and all the central performances are masterly. And the exploration of the complex relationship between father and son is truly touching.

Since making its worldwide debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film, and more specifically O'Toole, has been widely tipped to make the Oscars shortlist.

If he was, it would be his ninth Academy Award nomination.

What makes the film even more enjoyable is that the majority of the film's beautiful backdrops are right here on our doorstep - Norwich Cathedral, Peckover House at Wisbech, Holkham and Elveden Halls and Norwich's Elm Hill all star.

The film's director, Toa Fraser says that the region was a gift to a film maker.

“It's a beautiful part of the world,” he says. “Wisbech is a real hidden gem for a film production. It has such great architecture, which is perfect for the story. And Peckover House was ideal.

“We had some good times doing the recce - drinking Elgoods at Brancaster,” he laughs. Toa is half Fijian, was born in the UK and was raised in New Zealand where he is an established playwright. Dean Spanley is his second feature film.

“I felt like I fell into theatre a little bit by accident. I grew up wanting to be a film-maker,” he says.

“I'm 33, so I was two when Star Wars came out. It was a massive influence on me. Also my grandmother from Southend was a big Hollywood fan and loved taking me to the movies; we saw films like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“But I started writing plays at uni in Auckland. I wrote one called Bare in 1998 which was well received in New Zealand and around the world and I kind of got the bug.”

In 2000 Toa wrote a one-woman show called No. 2, about a matriarch gathering her clan around her.

“Even as I wrote that show I knew at some stage I would like to adapt it for the screen. We ended up making it in 2005,” he says.

It made quite an impact, winning the prestigious Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. That led to him getting the pitch for Dean Spanley.

“It was pitched to me as a story about an eccentric Englishman who imagines that he was a dog in a former life,” he says. “I was excited to find out that the real heart of the story which wasn't mentioned was about the father and son relationship.

“No. 2 and Dean Spanley don't have an obvious connection between them, but there is one - they're both stories about family. I was thrilled to have the chance to work on this,” he says, adding that while No. 2 was a nod to his Fijian roots, Dean Spanley is a love letter to his Englishness.

“It was a real privilege to be able to work with such a great group of people - cast and crew,” Toa adds. “Obviously Peter O' Toole was a delight to work with. He's a spirited and generous collaborator and it was one of the great privileges of my life to work with that guy.”