Monday, February 5, 2024

FairyTale: A True Story. A Review



"I do believe in fairies, I do, I do". That, I understand, is how Tinker Bell is saved by children when they watch the stage version of Peter Pan. Never having attended such a performance, I cannot say for sure if this does happen or continues to. FairyTale: A True Story is very loosely based on a real-life case. It is, however, more about faith than facts, and a surprisingly deeper and sadder film than people might think.

In World War I Britain, young Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl) goes to stay with her cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hough) and her aunt and uncle, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls) and Arthur (Paul McGann). Frances' father is missing in action, and while Francis herself is not dwelling on that, it is Polly who is more anxious. Polly is still struggling with the grief of losing her son Joseph, keeping his room exactly as it was.

Also grieving the loss of a son is celebrated writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole). He lost his son in the war, and has found comfort in a firm belief in spiritualism. His friend, celebrated magician Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) does not believe in spiritualism and sees it as a way of defrauding vulnerable people. However, Sir Arthur will not be dissuaded from his beliefs. He is more convinced when, through the work of Theosophical Society speaker Edward Gardener (Bill Nighy), Sir Arthur sees pictures of fairies.

Frances and Elsie are firm believers in fairies who live near a brook. To prove that fairies are real, they use Arthur's camera to photograph them. Polly and Sir Arthur believe the pictures are genuine. Arthur and Houdini do not. However, the girls are too young to know anything about faking images, and a photographic analysis shows the pictures themselves are genuine. 

However, are the fairies themselves genuine? While Sir Arthur champions what became known as the Cottingley Fairies, others are convinced the whole thing is a scam. Stratford Argus reporter John Ferret (Tim McInnerny) ferrets out the Wrights while fairy seekers swamp the private land. Will the fairies reveal themselves? Are Frances and Elsie pulling a fast one over everyone? Will skeptic Harry Houdini and true believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle find who is right?

What I found in FairyTale is that in reality, the veracity of the Cottingley Fairies is secondary to the theme of the film. FairyTale is really about faith and grief. So many of the people in FairyTale want to believe in something outside the observable world. Almost all of them are desperate for there to be an afterlife, something in the great beyond, something that cannot be seen. The adults in particular, save perhaps for Houdini, are going through some great grief that finds an outlet in something both supernatural and sweet. Fairies, therefore, would be the perfect beings.

Early on in FairyTale, we see the belief in fairies almost as a coping mechanism. The shadow of young Joseph hangs over the Wright home. Elsie has dealt with the loss in a matter-of-fact manner save for her continued use of a fairy palace Joseph had made. Frances, more guileless and more believing, might have found in the fairies a way to not deal with her father's disappearance and potential death. Only Gardner, whose faith is not based on any grief but genuine belief, comes across as a bit looney.

It is a credit to director Charles Sturrige that he got some wonderful performances out of his cast. Nighy's Mr. Gardner comes across as comically crazy, someone who sounds rational but who can have children genuinely making him believe that he has accidentally disturbed a fairy ring. Harvey Keitel and Peter O'Toole, despite both having small roles, do quite well individually and together as the doubtful Houdini and the faithful Doyle. O'Toole in particular has such a wonderful way of delivering dialogue. His monologue about his belief in the supernatural to Houdini is an especially effective piece of acting. One might not consider Keitel the first choice for Houdini, but he does well in FairyTale as the more doubtful of the two. McGann, sadly underused, also did well as the more loving but doubtful father.

The two girls, Elsie's Hoath and Earl's Frances, were pleasant without being insipid. They played the parts correctly: as two girls who truly believe the fairies are real, even if Hoath was meant to be slightly more doubtful.

It is also a credit to Ernie Contreras' screenplay (with story by Contreras, Tom McLoughlin and Albert Ash) that it gave room for doubt. Granted, not much, as we saw the fairies interact with the girls. However, it brought a certain plausibility to both the reality of fairies along with those more skeptical. FairyTale does lean in perhaps too much into the former. The film does have a scene where Ferret, having discovered what appears to be the accepted truth about the Cottingley Fairies (they were cutout figures posed for the camera). However, when we see a literal ghost pop out and the evidence fly off into the wind, we sense that FairyTale does lean in too much on the "fairies are real" side.

I imagine that, while well acted, the final scene would trouble to infuriate Houdini. In the film, he does not denounce the girls while not accepting the reality of fairies. He exposes frauds, but he sees no deliberate effort to deceive or take advantage of others with the girls. Are fairies real?, he is asked. "As real as you wish them to be," is his answer. This seems a slightly strange idea for the skeptic to state.

Moreover, the real story of the Cottingley Fairies is more complicated. In reality, Elsie was sixteen years old, not the child she was presented. FairyTale never goes into exactly how they managed to photograph fairies. To be fair to the film, FairyTale was not interested in historical accuracy or in revealing the truth about the fairy photos. It aims to be a fantasy, one that appeals to children while still grappling with more adult subjects like grief and coping with that. 

FairyTale: A True Story is anything but. A better film could be made of how adults were so easily taken in. The motives of Elsie and Frances is never explored, though given how it wants to be more wholesome, they weren't going to be. On the whole, with generally well-acted roles, it may not be a true story but it is serviceable 

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