Photographing Fairies

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Photographing Fairies at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Fantasy Drama
Director: Nick Willing
Starring: Toby Stephens, Emily Woof, Ben Kingsley, Frances Barber, Phil Davis
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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10 thoughts on “Photographing Fairies

  1. Ken Hanke

    Talk about setting yourself up! However, I am going to take the high ground here — if only out of a sense of solidarity with another Jolson fan.

  2. Ken Hanke

    A Russian Jew in blackface singing about a southland he hadn’t even seen is many things — including odd — and is definitely of its time, but I don’t think it could actually be called racist. In any case, HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM! (arguably Jolson’s best movie appearance) contains no such numbers.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Jolson on film is something of an acquired taste. Most of the movies just aren’t very good, though a few are certainly interesting historical oddities. For sheer jaw-dropping strangeness, BIG BOY (1930) takes the cake. THE SINGING FOOL (1928) is interesting in that you see how far talkies (it’s still partly silent) had come since THE JAZZ SINGER. HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM! (1933) is also a true oddity, but a fascinating one. If you’re interested in any of this, I have copies of all his starring films.

    What any of this has to do with PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES is another matter.

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