Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – FairyTale: A True Story (DVD Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 22.03.2015

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – FairyTale: A True Story (DVD Movie Review)

FairyTale: A True Story (UK Rating: U)

The Cottingley Fairies caused quite a stir in the years just after World War I - or, at least, the photographs apparently taken of them by two young cousins did. Nearly 80 years later, the story was translated to the big screen in British movie, FairyTale: A True Story, which resurrected interest in the events. Now, it's at last released this week on DVD.

While it calls itself a true story, the movie is on the side of the fairies right from the outset, because the girls - and, therefore, the audience - actually do see them. Frances (Elizabeth Earl) goes to stay with her older cousin Elsie (Florence Heath) and her parents in Yorkshire during World War I. Her father is missing in action overseas. The girls frequently play in the beck (stream) at the end of the garden and decide to prove to Elsie's parents that they have seen fairies there by taking photographs. Elsie's mother shows them to Edward Gardner (Bill Nighey), President of the Theosophical Association and, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole) believes them to be genuine, they become public and the girls, minor celebrities. While all the public interest means that the fairies leave the beck, they eventually return to make Frances' dearest wish come true.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – FairyTale: A True Story (DVD Movie Review)

The events that inspired the film took place after the end of the First World War but, more importantly, the photographs turned out to be fakes. The girls owned up some years later, saying they had been too embarrassed to say anything at the time, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had taken an interest and the media had got hold of the story. In their defence, they never made, or attempted to make, any money out of their photographs. None of this is ever revealed on the screen, not even as a postscript at the end, even though the film increasingly moves further and further away from the real story as it progresses and becomes more of a fantasy.

While seventeen is no age for a film, it's old in terms of special effects and FairyTale: A True Story is certainly showing its age in the way it creates the fairies. In fairness, for their day, they are not at all bad, but for today's audience - especially younger members, who the film is aimed at - they look stiff and artificial. They are clearly actors wearing wings who have been diminished in size, but the camera never gets near enough for a proper close-up, which begs the question: what would they look like if the film was re-made now? They do give the film a charming naivety, though, which chimes perfectly with the storyline.

The cast is packed with familiar faces, some of whom already had established careers: Peter O'Toole, as Conan Doyle, for one; Harvey Keitel, miles away from those Mean Streets of New York, as an intense Harry Houdini, for another. British names in the cast include Paul McGann, Phoebe Nicholls, Bob Peck, Bill Nighey, Tim McInnerny and Anton Lesser, most recently seen as Sir Thomas Moore in TV's Wolf Hall. There's even an uncredited cameo from Mel Gibson, no less, in the final scenes, and this is a film made well after Braveheart! It has to be said, however, that the acting isn't always of the highest order, with McInnerny and Peck disappointingly guilty of hamming it up something rotten.

While it has children very much in mind, this is ultimately a film for the family, with some adult themes that will appeal to parents. Loss - of a child or parent - is an integral part of the story, along with the desperation and vulnerability it can cause. This is the reason for Houdini's presence, although it's only touched upon when he says he exposes fraudulent mediums who claim to speak to the dead. What he doesn't do is explain why. In reality, Houdini turned his energies to debunking psychics and clairvoyants after the death of his mother and his campaign was to cost him his friendship with Conan Doyle, who was a convinced spiritualist.

Rated 6 out of 10


Set against the backdrop of war, the events behind FairyTale: A True Story attempt to reflect a nation trying come to terms with loss on a grand scale, but it chooses to go down a more simplistic road, taking the events into the realm of fantasy. This is an instance of truth definitely being stranger - and more interesting - than fiction. As a film for the family, it has "Sunday afternoon" written all over it, as long as the youngsters can put up with 1990s special effects.

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