FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY
FairyTale: A True Story is a beautifully made film. It is impeccably directed by Charles Sturridge who has been responsible for such eminent British tv series as Brideshead Revisited (1981), Gullivers Travels (1995) and Shackleton (2001). The period detail is lavish and the garden is rendered in impossibly rich and verdant colours. For all that, the film strikes one as, well ... odd. You get the impression it wasnt sure what approach to take to its subject matter. The plot sets up a faith-vs-reason debate with Arthur Conan Doyle on one side and Harry Houdini (as played by Harvey Keitel who physically resembles Houdini rather well) on the other. It subtitles itself A True Story but from the moment you see the films poster, which displays a fairy and the single word Believe! there are no doubts as to which side of the debate the film is on. And if that left no doubt then the various appearances throughout of fairies frolicking in the woods clinches the issue.
Oddly enough, the film or at least the script never wants to commit to these visions as being real. It persists in conducting its faith vs reason and is it a hoax? debate regardless of the literalisations seen on screen and the two seem at odds with one another. The scenes of the girls photographing the fairies all take place offstage, for instance. The end never 100% commits itself to the belief but instead argues if the fairies arent true then at least they should be. Harry Houdini, we learn, is no longer the famous debunker of spiritualists and woolly-headed nonsense he was historically we now learn he only debunked those who were dishonest and sought to defraud, while the film even has him stand up to say that beliefs like this are okay as long as they are conducted in a spirit of child-like innocence (something one would tend to argue is the very thing that gives rise to such beliefs in the first place). The script does not exactly do itself a service by throwing the case for the fairies in the same bag as belief in angels, the Theosophists and the story of the Angel of Mons (a claim that angels appeared to guide a group of soldiers during World War I a popular myth that in fact originated as a work of fiction by Arthur Machen). The friendship between Houdini and Conan Doyle is at least historically true, although in reality the two parted ways with the firmly sceptical Houdini disparaging Conan Doyles belief in spiritualism.
You feel that FairyTale: A True Story started out as being a period film about the incident but became hijacked by the decision to turn it into a childrens film. It has been crafted as an Edwardian childrens fantasy in the mini-vogue that has been made fashionable in recent years by the successes of The Secret Garden (1993) and A Little Princess (1995). This mini-genre tells realist childrens stories in lovingly detailed period surroundings that build toward eucatastrophic climactic transformations. In following this tendency, FairyTale departs historical account altogether for a wholly fantastic climax with the weasely sceptic being driven away by a ghost, fairies entering and transforming the girls bedroom and closing on the seemingly magically empowered return of one of the girls fathers (if you look carefully, an uncredited guest appearance from a well-known actor whose company also produced the film) after he went missing in action in WWI.
(Winner for Best Cinematography, Nominee for Best Musical Score at this sites Best of 1997 Awards).