Unabashedly mystical, Nick Willing’s Photographing Fairies (1997) is one of those movies where you wonder how anyone decided to finance it, but you’re glad they did—not ecstatic, mind you, but glad. It’s a quiet, stately little film, with a handful of brilliant sequences, an intriguing premise and solid performances all down the line. In one sense, the film is a romance—that of Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) and his wife of one day (Rachel Shelley), who is killed in the Alps on their honeymoon. Everything that Charles does—from being unconcerned about the prospect of his own death on the battlefields of World War I to his obsession with matters supernatural—is grounded in that romance. When Beatrice Templeton (Frances Barber) wants a photographer’s opinion on a picture she claims depicts a fairy in her daughter’s hand, Charles’ interest only becomes piqued when he realizes it cannot have been faked or a fluke, since whatever is in the child’s hand is reflected in her eyes. The prospect of there being something beyond our normal lives—the possibility of being reunited with his wife—drives him in his attempt to see the fairies for himself and photograph them.
The strength of the film lies in its ability to raise questions it can’t answer without becoming maddening in the bargain. What are these fairies? What is the connection between seeing them and the ingestion of the small white flowers—and why do the girls who have first done this perform the ritual of communion with the flowers? What connects the fairies to the “next world?” The film never says, but the questions are sufficiently intriguing in their own right. Willing’s direction is another plus. Several of the scenes are quite remarkable, while the film’s final section set to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is absolutely stunning, as is the manner in which the scene leads back to the opening and beyond. Haunting and compelling.