'Death is merely a change of state. The soul is a fresh expression of the self. The dead are not dust. They really are only a footfall away.'
It is the ensuing years after World War I, and Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) is eking out a living as a photographer in London after having spent time in the trenches of Europe, photographing dead soldiers for posterity. Before the war, in 1912, he was married in Switzerland, but due to a mountain climbing tragedy, became a widower before the honeymoon was over. He has become a mere shell of a man, going through the motions of everyday life, and unceasing in his wait for the day that he himself will cease to exist. His function in this life has been to debunk the world of the supernatural and all who claim to make contact with the spirit world.
At one such function, sponsored by the Theosophical Society, he lays waste to a set of photographs purporting to show two young girls with fairies dancing around them. A woman who attended the same function comes to his studio, showing photos of a different calibre -- a little girl with a fairy obscured, standing on the end of her hand. Castle readily pooh poohs this display, and the woman leaves, satisfied and yet unfulfilled in her quest. Before long, Castle comes to realize, through a series of experiments, that there is a great deal of truth being portrayed in that photograph, and hence, he makes it his goal to travel to Birkenwell to confront his own demons and solve the mystery of life and death as we know it.
Photographing Fairies is a variation on a theme of a famous incident that happened in England in 1917 involving two young girls, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright of Cottingley, who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies in their garden. These photos were seized upon by no other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame in 1921, and bandied about as absolute proof of theosophist theories that he was attracted to. Final proof of the girls and their duplicity was revealed in 1983, when Elsie wrote her famous confession and Frances followed suit. The article was posted in The Times.
Photographing Fairies is definitely not a film for children. It was released the same year as another film about fairies, Fairy Tale: A True Story, but is miles apart in telling a tale of fantasy and awe. While the latter asks us to believe that all we see happened as it was filmed, there is obviously a great deal of artistic license that is projected. Photographing Fairies differs for it asks us as viewers to take it or leave it as we see fit. It is a much darker story and obviously not a fairy tale with a happy ending, except in the mind of Charles Castle as he races on a course with death. It is truly a shame that this film was lost in the shuffle of Fairy Tale, for while both have their good points, Photographing Fairies has an absolute stranglehold on a story with teeth in it.
Toby Stephens plays Charles Castle as an enigma, and in doing so, has provided us with an entirely convincing performance. Emily Woof as Linda, governess to the little girls, Clara and Ana Templeton (Hannah Bould and Miriam Grant) is effective in her pursuit to keep Charles in this world and not the next. The girls are etched in innocence and peace of mind and never did one get the feeling that they were witnessing 'acting' by precocious children. Ben Kingsley as Reverend Templeton provides a strange and calculated portrayal, moving from frame to frame, changing his spots like a leopard, until the final denouement between Castle and himself in the forest. Edward Hardwicke as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is simply doing what he does best; lending credence to a marvelous block of acting as has been his wont over a long and illustrious career. It's too bad that his role was so short in this film.
Nick Willing and Chris Harrald have taken the novel of the same name by Steve Szilagyi and worked miracles with it. The novel was simply an armature for an interpretation that is a vast improvement on a slight undertaking by Mr. Szilagyi. The better story is provided with the film, for complexities of human nature are betrayed that never quite see the light of day in the book. Both Willing and Harrald are relative newcomers to the world of film, but if Photographing Fairies is any indication of what stuff they are made of, then a productive, creative and applause filled road is theirs to travel.
The photography by John de Borman is exquisite and the English countryside, along with the Swiss Alps, have never been shown to lovelier advantage. There is an impressionistic quality to it all, as we are drawn into the fabric of the story.
When it first opened, critics made a great deal out of the fact that the visuals of the fairies had none of the requisite necessities that were needed to make the viewer think that they were actually seeing the agreed upon subject. What nitpicking! They failed to understand that only a visual was pertinent to the crux of the situation, and not a high tech, state of the art blow out. The merest hint of 'it's there' was all that was needed and it was achieved in spades.
Music by Simon Boswell was evocative of time and place and it shared mood duties with the death dirge of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which is played to full effect and in compliance with Castle's life and eventual fate. If there is a dry eye to be had at the conclusion of this film, then the person they belong to, has no heart or soul.
This reviewer was intrigued and swept away, into the world of make believe and what if's. The logical and yet as we know and are taught it, irrationality of the subject, melded together to present for our considerations, a well thought out and richly veined tale that stays with us long after the credits have rolled, the music has stopped and we have left the theatre. We are left with the possibilities of probabilities as we would like to think them to be. We are entreated entrance into a world of simple things and knowing souls who will guide us to another world where things will be complacent and serene, if we just believe.
Photographing Fairies is that rare commodity that comes along and stays with us like a cool breeze on a summer's day, and is just as quickly gone to adjust its policies. A seed has been planted and the questions we are left with take us back to a time of innocence, longing and understanding. Is there a place, a clearing, a glen that houses such things? We can only wish...