A difficult-to-find curio, Photographing Fairies greatly impressed me when I saw it at the time of its release. It quickly fell into obscurity, however, despite being superior to the higher profile, similarly themed but decidedly more junior in disposition Fairy Tale: A True Story. Both films were released in the same year (not quite on the level of duelling meteor or volcano pictures, but nevertheless a notable convergence of subject matter). Photographing Fairies can currently be found online currently, thanks to the rarefilmm site, and it’s well worth investigating: imaginative and thought provoking, if tending to the slightly OTT at times.
It would be hard-pressed not to, with Toby Stephens and Ben Kingsley in lead roles. Stephens has since settled into reliable leading man (usually on TV) middle age, but he was most likely to offer a petulant sneer around this time, as if he were competing with Guy Pearce for parts (Die Another Day is his worst offender). Kingsley could, when the situation called for it, chew on scenery for all he was worth, and his unsubtle-on-paper Reverend Templeton, decked out in a flowing fright wig, is prime fodder for the film’s eagerly brandished digs at traditional (Christian) religion and the promise of unfettered spiritual inquiry (the codified interest of the spiritualist establishment is also reserved some criticism, but more by-the-by). Director Nick Willing, with Chris Harrald, loosely adapted Steve Szilagy’s 1992 novel of the same name, and magnifies both the transportively magical of the usually unseen realm and the excesses of those responding to it.
In fairness to Kingsley’s Templeton, he has reason to nurse ire towards obsessions with fairies, but he’s already been built up as shallow and contemptible specimen. A fitness fanatic who puts on a show for the infatuated ladies of the village, the intimation is that he is a close-minded man, one openly aggressive should anyone threaten his territory. When his wife Beatrice (Frances Barber) dies falling from the great tree – where the children say they have seen fairies – he invites Castle for a late-night run, during which he threatens his life (believing, falsely, that Castle nursed untoward intentions in respect of Beatrice). Events culminate in Templeton chopping down the tree – a not inconsiderable feat! – and burning it; Charles attempts to stop him, leading to the reverend’s death and Charles condemned to the gibbet.
So those promoting Christianity are blinkered and dangerous. Christianity itself is to be lightly mocked (the girls enact a parody of the eucharist when taking the hallucinatory flowers that enable them to see elementals). Willing is after the difference between hollow words – Templeton professes the importance of faith, but it is empty faith, devoid of intelligent inquiry – and spiritual succour. Admittedly, this comes by way of an LSD equivalent – like Timothy Leary, Castle shuffles off this mortal coil tripping – but the photographer is ultimately less interested in proof (to others) than knowing (for himself, which provides peace).
Charles: Ladies and gentlemen, the miracle of photography.
Such emphasis tends to the overwrought. But then, Willing and Harald have changed the source material so as to emphasise the different strata of searching; Castle loses his wife in the Alps in the 1912 opening scene, from whence he is simultaneously indifferent to notions of the metaphysical and careless of the mortal. As a photographer in the trenches, he pays no heed to a bomb waiting to detonate in order to capture the necessary shot (after the war, he goes into business with assistant Phil Davis). At a Theosophical Society lecture attended by Arthur Conan Doyle (former Watson Edward Hardwicke) and introduced by Radio 4 Sherlock Holmes Clive Merrison, Charles takes undisguised delight in demolishing the Cottingley Fairies case (“Some might call it flat – as if it had been cut out of a fashion page”).
Charles: As the tree falls, so does it lie. It’s no more mysterious than the full stop at the end of a sentence.
There’s tension infused from several directions, then, and some are handled more tactfully than others. The spiritualism trend that burgeoned following the World War I – all those grieving attempting to contact lost loved ones – is only tangentially addressed, but that might be for the best. We see how artifice offers comfort (Castle doctors photographs of parents with stand-ins of their deceased sons). Disdain is shown for secret societies (three freemasons with more money than sense are waiting for their photo to be taken). Advancing science brushes up against regressive make-believe. Conan Doyle, foremost advocate of logic, clarity and seeing the truth pertaining to the material realm through his best-known character – and, perhaps, a reluctant Black Hat – succumbs to the fakery of mediumship and the spiritualist grab through his own grieving (and is given the groaner of a line: “Your detective work puts Sherlock Holmes himself to shame”).
He’s the face, if you like, of the alternative movement of the time, but Castle is seen to reject this too as somewhat facile, a degree of comfort-food spirituality or belief that is unwilling to take any true risk in seeking. “You can’t capture God with a camera” admonishes Templeton, adding “It’s not proof you need but faith”. And, in essence, Conan Doyle is professing something similar. Once converted to the fairy cause, Charles attests to verifying the physical reality of the next world but Conan Doyle warns “Heaven is not a physical place. You can’t measure it. it’s a spiritual condition you aspire to. No more”. It’s a valid objection, that attempting to confer truth through the principles of materialist science will leave one wanting, but Castle is mostly affronted that the author is so superficial in his inquiry that he’s willing to make a wager of it (“Your world versus mine”).
Which is not to say that there aren’t valid applications of science with regard to the metaphysical or “supernatural”, but rather that they tend to be approached via rather dogmatic preceding principles. Certainly, though, one of the fascinations of Victoriana and its approach to science is that many disciplines are still to be compartmentalised; all avenues have yet to be closed off, the consequence of which will be permitting a very narrow path of permitted, legitimate method and inquiry. The photography aspect here has its antecedents, notably in Kirlian photography and images of apparent ectoplasmic emission. Earlier film The Asphyx had as its hook the idea of capturing the soul leaving the body on film (this turns out to be a more intricately purposed phenomenon involving the reaper-esque titular entity, the trapping of which renders man immortal).
In the book, the vicar character becomes addicted to ecstatic experiences with the fairies, so practising a different kind of religious falsity, just more overtly hypocritical. The key in the film is not the benevolence of the fairies, whose motivation is left ambiguous, but rather the promise of continuance. As such, they are positioned to “embody” a gateway between worlds, whereby one explodes in Charles’ death tunnel and leaves him on the alps one more; in his purgatorial state, he is allowed to relive his most regretful experience but this time with an affirmatory outcome.
The fairies are otherwise a less-than-open book. They lead Beatrice, Charles and Clara to fall from the great tree (in an altered state), with respectively resultant death, a bloodied face and a broken limb to show for it. They are not inherently preservative, bursting through Charles’ chest or out of his mouth to provocatively ecstatic expressions on his part. They are not merely cutesy; they are mischievous and disturbing as well as enticing and seductive. They’re rendered as both traditionally feminine and, bizarrely, as an obese male (eunuch?) specimen (it has to be said too, the sight of fairies going down in flames like WWII fighter planes is unintentionally mirthful). This ties with Conan Doyle’s speculation regarding their origins, that they are humanoid but not human, another race: “For some, fairies are handmaidens of nature…. God’s orphans, the angels that were expelled from heaven”. Albeit, fairies are actually elementals, so not in the same category as the etheric entities that constitute the angelic.
Charles: I had a taste of heaven.
The message partly appears to be that the natural world holds its own means of providing answers to any question or doubt, here through the gateway of the flower (an invented one, so neither Datura nor psilocybin). Composer Simon Boswell – who includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 as an accompaniment to Charles’ final encounter – held that the explanation was the flowers slowing the metabolism so humans can see fairies; fairies normally travel incredibly fast (Wiki suggests the flowers slow brain function).
Charles’ singlemindedness as a character is sometimes overcooked; the scene in which he shows up at Beatrice’ funeral, bloodied and badgering the girls over the location of more flowers, verges on parody. One would forgive the minister for viewing anything regarding the matter askance on that basis alone. When he first arrives in Birkenwell, he immediately begins chasing little children around the village like a man possessed. But no this is not about Lewis Carroll or JM Barrie (see Willing’s other work). Ultimately, he is accepting, even inviting of his fate, waving off nanny Linda (Emily Woof) and her invitation to her real world (“There is another world, as close to this one as I am to you”). Of which, woe betide the poor Templeton girls, shepherded from the free rein of a rural idyll to the materialist entrenchment of a London refuge (we are, presumably, supposed to see this as a good thing).
Willing, son of prominent artists Paul Rego and Victor Willing (beware the artistically illustrious family), got his start in music videos and has spent much of his career subsequent to Photographing Fairies making fantasy fare for TV. Indeed, there’s an almost systematic sense in the way he has tackled Alice in Wonderland (twice), Greek myths (Jason and the Argonauts, Olympus), Oz (The Tin Man) Peter Pan (Neverland) and HG Wells (The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells).
I haven’t seen any of those, but Photographing Fairies remains an impressive piece of work, intent to plough its own unique and distinctive furrow. Its ambivalence towards its titular creatures hews it closer to the more family-friendly Darby O’Gill and the Little People, wherein leprechauns are positioned to lead humans astray through trickery, and if its trajectory is on the one hand downbeat, it is also affirmatory with regard to their essential reality. We’re entitled to seeing the fairy as all in Charles’ mind, the product of a powerful hallucinogen, but the application of science (photography) is clearly positioned to lend them credence and actuality, even if the evidence wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Or under the microscope.