In the midst of the First World War, little Frances Griffiths arrives in West Yorkshire to stay with cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) and her parents Arthur (Paul McGann) and Polly (Phoebe Nicholls). The Wright family are mourning the death of their son, Joseph, while Frances’ father is missing in action, although she fervently believes he will come home. On their daily jaunts into the woods, Elsie and Frances claim to have seen fairies and they produce photographs that astonish the world. These photographs enchant Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole), who journeys to Cottingley with sceptical magician Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel). Hundreds follow in Doyle’s wake, including bumbling Theosophist lecturer E.L. Gardner (Bill Nighy), who thinks the girls are spiritualist mediums, and nasty reporter John Ferret (Tim McInnerny), determined to expose them as frauds.
Loosely based on the famous story of the Cottingley Fairies, Fairy Tale: A True Story is part of Warner Bros.’ Nineties run of children’s movies. It’s likeably ambitious for family fare. Director Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited) invokes the traumatic fallout from WW1, the rise in spiritualism and Rousseau’s then-popular notion of childhood as an idealized state of being, as a vast canvas upon which to weave this enchanting fable. These ideas are brilliantly embodied in the opening scene where Frances sits enraptured throughout a stage production of Peter Pan, clapping wildly when asked whether she believes in fairies. The film does try to have it both ways, as a satire and an affirmation of our need to believe, and with its fairies both real magical creatures and a metaphor for faith, hope and steadfastness against adversity. However, it does very well by its themes: coping with bereavement, innocence threatened by industrialisation (Arthur frets that Elsie will have to leave school and work in the local factory run by Bob Peck’s vulgar tycoon), real faith versus New Age blather, tensions between childhood and adolescence, and the crucial difference between a cruel trick and a wondrous illusion.
The overriding question is not “Do you believe?” but “What does it mean to believe?” as the story explores how fairies come to mean different things to each character. For Frances and bereaved Polly Wright they are an emblem of hope. For Doyle, mourning his own son’s death, they’re an affirmation of life in the hereafter, a way for him to make sense of it all. Harry Houdini comes to see them as an illusion, but one worthy of his own art and bringing profound wonder to the world. Harvey Keitel, sporting a prosthetic nose, may seem unlikely casting, yet he sparks brilliantly off a majestic Peter O’Toole and his gentle advice to young Elsie warms the heart.
Elsewhere, the fragmented storytelling yields surprisingly many choice scenes, swelling with emotion: Frances befriending the disfigured corporal (Anton Lesser) who later repays her kindness; O’Toole’s pained expression when recalling his son; Bill Nighy examining the photographs on a crowded train and practically leaping out of his seat (“Good heavens!”); Peter Mullan as a soldier who saw angels; teary-eyed Mrs. Wright realising “they’re real, aren’t they?”; a sick child asking Elsie and Frances to let the fairies make him better.
A sweet-natured lyricism extends to the visual effects which bring real magic to the fairy scenes. Cinematographer Michael Coulter utilizes fluttering “fairy-cam” as pixies prance through the trees, twinkling lights surround night-time skies, while performers parade in charming costumes that evoke the drawings of Cicely Mary Barker. Frances’ first encounter by the riverbank is a magical moment and Queen Maab’s climactic arrival with her vast fairy entourage provides the perfect capper, set to Zbigniew Priesner’s marvellous score (lookout for a cameo from the executive producer). Only the appearance of a ghostly Joseph feels like overkill.
More than the special effects, it’s the captivating young leads who make us believe. Frances and Elsie each have individual stories/motivations that hold our interest, well embodied by soulful Florence Hoath and rambunctious Elizabeth Earl (Priceless scene: having lived in Africa, Frances is asked if there are cannibals out there. “I haven’t met any”, she replies. “Are there any more stupid questions?”). Both actresses continue to appear on British television, and Doctor Who fans may recognise Hoath from the excellent two-part story: “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”.
Amusingly, the whole “fairy hoax” hinges on the upper classes’ inability to believe “the children of working men” could ever fool them. Whether or not there really were fairies, two ingenious little girls captivated the world with something that became quite beautiful. Fairy Tale should become a Sunday teatime classic.