Charles Sturridge’s Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) is, in fact, grounded in reality, but it can hardly be said to stay there. It is indeed true that in 1917 two young English girls produced a couple of photographs that purported to show fairies in them. It is also true that much of Great Britain—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—took the photos and the story at face value. After that, well, let’s say there are different kinds of truth. If you take the film’s subtitle to mean that the story is true in the historical sense, then it’s a brazen lie. But if you take it to mean that Sturridge and his writers are in search of a deeper truth and don’t mind a little lying to get there, it’s perhaps a fair claim.
Fairy Tale is a difficult film to dislike. It manages to be sentimental without being cloying, and there’s a sense throughout that it has the very best intentions. Plus, there’s more here than meets the eye in terms of the story—jiggered facts and all. Note well the year is 1917. The war is still going on and the film, despite its generally idyllic settings, takes place in a country that has been at war for three years. The strain is starting to tell and the aura of the war and death and maimed soldiers hangs heavily over everything. It’s this very sense of desperation that makes the idea that the girls photographs might be believed—that they came about at a time when people were dying to believe in magic or just to believe in anything at all.
But the film takes its magic quite seriously all the same. It flirts with skepticism and even gets to the point—especially if you know what you’re looking for—of debunking the photographs, but stops short owing to apparent fairy intervention. (And on the basis laid down by Harvey Keitel’s Harry Houdini in the course of the film that people don’t really want to know how a trick is performed.) That reads more absurdly than it plays. That’s also true of the film’s apparent actual belief in fairies.
The film is also blessed with terrific performances all around—not just from Peter O’Toole as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harvey Keitel as Houdini, though both offer very interesting and personal takes on these historical personages. Phoebe Nicholls, Bill Nighy, Paul McGann and the two girls, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl, are all absolutely perfect in their roles. Plus, it’s a good-looking movie with very good production and costume design (the latter by Shirley Russell). So why isn’t it a better movie than it is? Oh, it’s good, but it ought to be better and it isn’t. Why? Personally, I put it down to the director, Charles Sturridge, who is a fine technician, but whose work always feels academic-minded—a little too concerned with being proper, tasteful and vaguely literary. That’s what kicks in here and in everything else I’ve ever seen by him. It doesn’t sink the film, but it does keep it a few notches from greatness.