Fairytale: A True Story

on October 24, 1997 by Kim Williamson
   In the manner of the best children's works, "FairyTale: A True Story" has a motif-packed opening section: Houdini outside London's Hippodrome; a stage performance of "Peter Pan," with Tinkerbell's life in the balance; a solemn woman visiting a grave; a young girl saying, "Mom says we're not allowed to wear colors"; a religious sort with pamphlets asking, Do angels exist?; a trainload of wounded soldiers heading home from the Great War. Very quickly, the audience of this Charles Sturridge ("Where Angels Fear to Tread") begins to feel they're in the process of watching something special and perhaps even great unspool on the screen before them.
   For the most part, "FairyTale: A True Story" delivers exactly that. The story--which scripter Ernie Contreras bases on a real-life incident--of two young cousins (newcomers Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl) who produce photographs of fairies that become the center of national and then worldwide controversy in this century's second decade. Wisely, the filmmaker avoid the global scope, preferring quiet conversation in the intimacy of the little girls' shared room and such telling considerations as a tiny empty treehouse built for the fairies by the now-dead brother of Elsie, the elder of the two girls. (Frances suffers her own emotional trauma: Her father, away at war, is missing in action.) Nicely counterpointing the question of whether the photos were "unretouched, open-air, single-shot exposures" or simple works of fraud, escape expert Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel, in a discomfited performance) toils to debunk the pictures, even as his great friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole, as good as Keitel is bad), whose soldier son was killed in the muds of the Somme, strives to win them acceptance.
   Even more than the excellent "A Little Princess" before it, which famously opened to critical praise and empty theatres, "FairyTale: A True Story" has a novelistic feel whose complexity of character and concept works against a massive emotional payoff onscreen. The closest it comes arrives when Frances, with both her father and the fairies apparently gone from her life, says, "I think I know how it feels to be grown up." Although the denoument that follows, despite delivering a marvelous moment of family bonding, could be the Icon production's key thematic misstep--there's a sound downstairs bringing news of the real world outside, and on hearing those much-desired footsteps Frances can no longer see the fairies--"FairyTale: A True Story" comes close to achieving the cinematic sublime: Being a film for all ages for the ages.    Starring Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl, Bill Nighy, Phoebe Nicholls, Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel. Directed by Charles Sturridge. Written by Ernie Contreras. Produced by Wendy Finerman and Bruce Davey. A Paramount release. Fantasy. Rated PG for brief mild language. Running time: 98 min. Screened at the Toronto fest.
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