Fairytale: A True Story (distributed by Paramount, 1997)

Fairytale: A True Story is based on the bare bones of a fairly well known incident. In 1917, two English girls, (one teen, one pre-teen) claimed to have taken photographs of fairies in Yorkshire. The photographs were examined by experts who verified that they did not seem retouched, nor had they been double exposed. Several people in the public eye including, most famously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed the girls. Conan Doyle even wrote a book about the girls and the photos -- The Coming of the Fairies. Sir Arthur was a friend of the escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini often debunked false spiritualists and frauds that he felt played on the sorrow of the bereaved and the naiveté of the gullible; conversely, Conan Doyle was a great believer in the supernatural.

However Fairytale: A True Story is not a discussion of the pros and cons of the reality of the photos, but rather a lovely tribute to the power of belief. The movie opens with the bereaved Wright family. Polly Wright (Phoebe Nicholls) cannot seem to come to terms with the loss of her son and this adversely affects the entire family. She has sought solace from several sources and is trying another, theosophy -- to the detriment, her husband believes, of their living child Elsie (Florence Hoath). Arthur Wright (Paul McGann) obviously hopes that the arrival of Frances, Elsie's cousin, will bring some company for his rather lonely daughter, but young Frances (Elizabeth Earl) has her own bereavement. Her father is missing in France and it is obvious that everyone from the Wright family to the disfigured veteran Frances befriends on the train believes he is dead.

Several scenes such as the incident on the train deal on a very poignant, everyday level with profound loss and add to the complexity of the film, which lifts it from the level of "children's movie". In one of the most touching incidents in the movie, a wounded soldier turns to young Frances revealing his disfigured face. Frances reacts in very natural shock but instead of turning away -- obviously what the soldier has come to expect -- she continues to talk to him, looking directly at his eyes. The soldier's look of surprise and pleasure at this small kindness is one of the most affecting scenes in the movie and of course cues the viewer that Frances is a special person -- one who could be favored with the sight of a fairy.

The girls renew their friendship, express a mutual belief in fairies and ardently desire to see one, which they do. Adults predictably react with skepticism -- it is not just that no one believes them but that the idea of fairy visitation is almost impolite. Apparently Elsie's dead brother often saw fairies but was told that as a young man who was soon to begin work he was never to mention seeing them. Elsie's mother also used to see fairies but cannot see them as an adult; the implication here is that once you "put away childish things" you are denied this source of wonder. The girls, however, refuse to deny their fairy visitations and decide to immortalize their discovery with technology only newly available to the general public -- a camera. The photos become known and eventually find their way to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and into his book, bringing unwanted publicity to the little town, the girls, and the fairies themselves.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at the way the fairies are portrayed in the movie. We, the audience, see the fairies. It could be that we are seeing a reality denied to some in the movie. It also could be that we are seeing what the girls wish they could see but not reality. Reality versus belief as a theme is reiterated by the relationship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who ardently believes in the supernatural, and his skeptical friend Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel, who eerily resembles the real Houdini). A third way in which reality and belief collide is Frances' devout faith that her father will come home and the sad acceptance of his death by almost everyone else in the movie. The point at which Frances too doubts that her father will ever come home is very touching.

There is one scene in the movie dealing with the supernatural other than fairies that is most effective. Amusing and scary all at once, it almost seems an afterthought yet it adds to the aura of otherworldliness of the film. To say more would be to reveal what I consider to be a surprise in a film which otherwise does not rely on the unexpected.

The scenery and cinimatography in Fairytale are wonderful. The story of how the particular site was chosen is told on the website and is well worth reading. The official web site is truly charming and one of the most entertaining movie sites I've seen.

Elsie and Frances' staunch defense of a very old belief using a modern means and attitude of obtaining evidence creates a tension that exemplifies the turn of the century world in which they live. The girls seem to personify the 19th century desire to believe coupled with a perverse 20th century demand for concrete proof. In the 21st century I think the order has been reversed -- we've relied on science and found that on some level it does not satisfy. The filmmakers use the incident of the fairy photographs to distill and clarify the contradictory nature of this modern human desire.

According to the official site the movie was very much a labor of love. Wendy Finerman recalls her initial reaction to the story: "When Albert Ash and Tom McLoughlin came in to my office and pitched me the story, there was an instant magic to it. One of the enjoyments of my job is to present great stories to the world and this was a great story. It just captured me. This is a story about two little girls who one day went out to have some fun and ended up changing the world. This wonderful movie celebrates the "power of belief".

[Andrea Garrett]

A site that gives an amusing bit of information
about the Houdini/Conan Doyle relationship is here

Here is a site discussing the photos and Doyle in a rather less favorable light