FairyTale: A True Story
The other Cottingley Fairies-inspired movie of 1997, one that proved both much more successful and grossly inferior. Is aiming squarely for cosy family viewing a justification for enfeeblement? Not really, but any of these Heritage-esque period pieces, even ones taking slightly fantastic liberties, tend to put costume and art direction first and theme and style a distant second. Charles Sturridge has that pedigree in spades – even his name suggests a plodding reliability – having been at the inception of the modern trend with Brideshead Revisited. So even before Merchant Ivory made it a brand. FairyTale: A True Story is radiantly innocuous, deliberately fashioned to offend no one and so hold lasting appeal to none beside little girls who – quite rightly and intuitively – wish to believe in elementals.
This makes it a very different beast to Nick Willing’s much more full-blooded, adult-skewing Photographing Fairies, then. Nevertheless, both use scepticism towards the subject – backed by the Age of Reason and cold, hard science – as a jumping off point. Sturridge’s film provides “objective” camera confirmation of actual fairies – although they hew closer to The Borrowers in terms of civilised, costumed types displaced by a frenzy of fairy hunters in their favoured bower– at the outset. There’s thus the comfort for the (young) viewer that, whatever mischief and deception may have gone on at the behest of the junior protagonists, it should not be an impediment to believing.
Indeed, if there’s an aspect of FairyTale: A True Story to vouch for, it’s that, for all that it is adapting a case of admitted “fraud”, it embraces belief in the very thing that has been proved as false (within the context of the fraud itself). Sturridge opens on a performance of Peter Pan and the encouragement “If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!”, and those who don’t know better are shown credulous to the validity of such creatures (even to the extent that other little girls play the little girls who “provably” had contact with them, a neat touch and commentary on media influence). When adults express doubt or incredulity, there is its own form of rebuke on the part of better-informed infants: “Grownups don’t know what to believe”.
Arthur Conan Doyle: Do you think I am such an old fool that I can be tricked into believing that I am speaking to my own child?
Harry Houdini: You wouldn’t be the first.
The conflict here is that of wilful self-deception. Sturridge and screenwriter Ernie Contreras capture the essence of the impulses of the era in bold type through establishing the “opposing” forces of actual figures Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole) and Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), one a grieving father invested in there being something beyond, the other a trained trickster self-charged with proving the trickster status of all who would claim supernatural import. Conan Doyle was involved in the actual case. Houdini simply makes for a neat adjunct in viewpoint.
Many questions arise from this scenario; was spiritualism a natural development or a manipulated one (both, it seems)? Was Conan Doyle genuine in his advocacy of the case or intentionally setting up a fall and disgrace of belief in such an area (through such a strident example of fakery)? Houdini was the James Randi of his era, of course, and whatever undoubted bogus examples there were, the impulse to draw a derisive line under the movement is as imprudent as denying elementals because theosophists took up the banner. Indeed, there’s an argument that theosophy was introduced as a means to swindle or manipulate an inevitable incoming spiritual wave, wrestling genuine seekers onto a path of distorted comprehension and Luciferian becoming (of superman and demigod). This would propel those with an awareness into a dead-end street, in a similar vein to the ’60s peace-and-love movement and its forlorn aspirations towards utopia. It was, after all, a thing, a significant thing, but it whiffed out.
Arthur Wright: There was no trickery in this darkroom and there are no fairies at the bottom of my garden.
There are several shrewd impulses in the movie, but Sturridge’s approach renders them much of a muchness. McGann’s working-class father is an example of one who, even within a rural idyll, has no opportunity to appreciate the splendours of nature. He’s caught up in making ends meet and so looks toward increased industrialisation as the means to a better life (electrification of the local factory). This in itself, in the shorthand of one scene, is shown to be no answer. It simply means that there’s more work incrementally; more shifts on more days of the week. And for the young, it is emphasised, childhood ends abruptly when one becomes an adolescent: employment in the factory from 13 and, if one is lucky, promised a job for life (obviously, such prospects seemed secure at that point, such was the stage of industrialisation).
It’s the greater shame the material here promises so much, has the potential for so many spinning plates, but ultimately does so little with it. Instead, FairyTale: A True Story invariably settles for the sentimental or facile. We see this at the outset with brave, oblivious Frances (Elizabeth Earl) not so much as blanching at Anton Lesser’s disfigured soldier, so pure is her heart (even if it’s a heart capable of deception). Such broad strokes are relied upon with Tim McInnerny’s invidious newshound, a typically odious McInnerny character who tracks down the family and even finds evidence of the drawings that sourced the deceit (before supernatural means spirit them away from him).
Edward Gardner: I’m certain both girls are clairvoyant and perhaps mediums, as well. Together, they create an etheric field which allows the fairies to metabolise small amounts of ectoplasm into their bodies. That’s how they’re able to capture them on film.
Bill Nighy, pre-mega-fame, is baffled and naïve theosophist Edward Gardner (based on the actual person), a ridiculous figure set as the embodiment of any who would fall for the theosophist grift (by which, I am not suggesting the religion is ridiculous, but rather that it was instituted as a form of deception. The movie, though, invariably opts for lowest-common-denominator depictions). The actual Gardner, in Luciferian fashion, suggested that the girls’ abilities and awareness “meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was underway”.
Other sides bear comment in their reflection of actual events, such as Kodak resisting endorsement of the photographs while finding that no manipulation had occured with the images themselves. I like the expert’s obliviousness to the potential import of their content because he’s purely concerned with the technical aspects (“Whoever took those didn’t know the first thing about photography”). We look at the photos now, and we’re amazed anyone would consider them genuine – which is not to say that many did not outright dismiss them at the time – but if no manipulation went on, how to explain the snap Elsie with a winged gnome, featuring as it does her extended distended hand? Whatever the explanation – “camera slant” according to Frances – it retains an eerily uncanny quality and was the element of the story that stayed with me after first seeing the images.
Harry Houdini: I fought against those who seek to make a profit out of the grief the pain and the loneliness of their fellow human beings. I stand against fraud, against the exploitation of suffering mothers, whose dead children are puppeteered in front of their grieving eyes. But I don’t see any of that here. I see only joy.
Houdini is given a doublespeak non-endorsement endorsement of the case, quite cute-clever in its presentation and essentially offering that all this is very harmless, as the only people who will be duped are those who should have the wherewithal to make their own deductions (adults). Is that fair? The legacy of the girls, and revisiting the case in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s rather drew a line under any room for doubt (and the fact that Elsie was significantly older than depicted in the movie, so not a mere child with no knowledge of photography). But they, to varying degrees, did insist they’d seen actual fairies, and who is to argue with that? Well, besides anyone dyed in materialist dogmatism.
Come the end of FairyTale: A True Story, even Elsie’s parents have seen genuine fairies, so it matters not a jot that the photographs aren’t the real deal. And Frances’ absent father returns form the Great War, safe and sound and in the form of a cameoing Mel Gibson, so that’s nice (this was an Icon picture, Mel’s production company, and he was popping up in a few of its films as a gesture of support at the time, regardless of whether he actually approved of the results. In the case of Million Dollar Hotel, most definitely not. The Singing Detective, likely more so, although it probably wasn’t all he hoped; he clearly vibed to several BBC serials from the 80s, Edge of Darkness being another, but reformatting them as movies wasn’t necessarily the best move-ie).
There’s a certain Chutzpah to FairyTale: A True Story’s title, since it plays so fast and loose, but that might be its most creatively savvy aspect. More playfulness in that regard would surely have served the production. Or, more fidelity. As it is, the film simply feels diluted, appealing in sentiment but lacking any nourishment when it comes to the areas it passes by: belief, religion, grief, the world beyond, worlds hidden. The spiritualist era is inherently fascinating for its rich seam of unguarded belief vs pronounced disdain, but few have tackled it in a vein that hasn’t seemed ultimately superficial or didactic.