Fairytale: A True Story

1997, PG, 99 min. Directed by Charles Sturridge. Starring Paul McGann, Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath, Harvey Keitel, Peter O'Toole.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 24, 1997

In 1917, two English girls named Elsie Wright (Hoath) and Frances Griffiths (Earl) disappeared into a garden with a Midg lightweight camera borrowed from Elsie's dad. They returned with pictures that brought the spiritualist craze of the early century, mostly dormant throughout World War I, back to a full, roaring boil. In these snapshots, the little girls posed with a capering, prancing group of tiny creatures they blithely identified as their fairy companions. Photo experts checked in vain for evidence of fakery. Soon, a hoard of Fleet Street journalists, gawkers with butterfly nets, and celebrities -- including Harry Houdini (Keitel) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (O'Toole) -- descended upon the country house to be close to the story that, as Doyle noted, bid fair to change our oldest assumptions about existence. Though hints of fakery later surfaced, the incident still poignantly illustrates humanity's yearning for transcendent mysteries and spiritual sustenance richer than the tepid corned beef hash of daily reality. Sturridge (Where Angels Fear to Tread, NBC's Gulliver's Travels) has to walk a fine line with this subject matter. To play up the hoax angle is to commit the cardinal kiddie-movie sin: failure to "believe in magic." Yet to ignore the element of doubt altogether is to deprive adults of the compelling dramatic conflict between Doyle's eloquent argument that reality doesn't stop at the boundaries of our five senses and the truth-shall-set-you-free philosophy espoused by Houdini. Although Ernie Contreras' intelligent script and the strong acting (especially by O'Toole, who pours all his vaunted passion and lucidity into the role of Doyle) saves Fairytale from the dreaded "interesting in a boring way" designation, I wouldn't call it essential viewing for anyone. Not for children, who'll love the enchantingly rendered fairies in their brief appearances but be bored by the endlessly ruminating adult characters. And probably not for grownups either; the history of spiritualism, theosophy, and the real-life encounters between Doyle and Houdini could be grist for several movies, but due to commercial and thematic constraints, Sturridge can only deal with them in passing. Still, there's a laudable blend of smartness, originality, and charm here. My hair-trigger schmaltz alarms lay mostly dormant. And the talented young Hoath's piercing, almost disturbingly wise gaze already shows more depth than that of ballyhooed actresses twice her age. If there's a precocious kid like her in your life, she might represent the ideal audience for Fairytale. Otherwise, go for the slam-dunk and rent Peter Pan, a timeless children's classic with enough adult resonance to have a major emotional disorder named in its honor.

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Fairytale: A True Story, Charles Sturridge, Paul McGann, Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath, Harvey Keitel, Peter O'Toole

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