A Fairy Tale--A True Story

Friday October 24, 1997

     "Fairy Tale--A True Story" is an enchanting, gorgeous-looking movie recalling "The Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden" that, like them, involves a spunky little heroine on her own coping in a new environment. It is even set in the same early 20th century era as the two earlier pictures.
     It's 1917 and World War I is raging. In the audience at London's Duke of York Theater is 10-year-old Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl), riveted by the sight of Peter Pan flying across the stage. For a brief moment Frances is transported from her grief over her parents. Her mother is dead, and her father has been declared missing in action--she is old enough to know what that most likely means.
     Frances has just arrived from Africa, where her father served in the military, to come to live with her Aunt Polly Wright (Phoebe Nicholls), Polly's husband Arthur (Paul McGann) and their 12-year-old daughter Elsie (Florence Hoath).
     The elegant Wrights live in a handsome, spacious manor house in West Yorkshire. Nearby there is the most beautiful brook you could ever see. The Wrights welcome Frances with open arms and understanding hearts, for they have just lost their own son. Even in such sad circumstances, Frances could not possibly have fared better. But there is more--much more--quickly at hand.
     This occurs when Elsie shares with Frances her great, incredible secret: that there really are fairies inhabiting that babbling brook. Sure enough, the fairies soon make themselves visible to the overjoyed Frances as tiny humans dressed in elegant medieval attire and fitted with hummingbird-like wings.
     But, as this is the 20th century, the girls do something very modern: Using Arthur's new Midg camera, they take pictures of the fairies--and, as word gets out, they find themselves at the center of what today has become an all-too-familiar media circus.
     As the debate rages over whether the pictures are real or fake, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole) and Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), who is currently performing in London, become involved and befriend the Wrights and the little girls as well. Both Conan Doyle and Houdini, who were old friends, had long been interested in spiritualism and the possibilities of the supernatural. Whereas Houdini had become a skeptic, a crusader in exposing fake mediums, Conan Doyle had become a believer over the decades, especially with the recent loss of his son in the war. He is convinced, in fact, that through a medium he was able to communicate with the son.
     As this substantial outline suggests, "A Fairy Tale--A True Story" has all the ingredients for an exceptional entertainment, and Ernie Contreras' script and Charles Sturridge's direction make the most of all of them. At heart it's a story of a need for faith and hope in a terrible time--Britain had suffered horrendous war losses by 1917.
     The presence of such legendary and respected figures as the greatest magician of them all and the creator of the greatest detective of them all--Sherlock Holmes--gives the film added depth and dimension. O'Toole is an elegant and humane Conan Doyle, and Keitel is flat-out perfect for Houdini, intellectually and physically. The rest of the cast, including young Earl and Hoath, are up to O'Toole's and Keitel's level.
     "A Fairy Tale" is an example of impeccable craftsmanship, with a flawless sense of period in its production design and costumes. (World War I is a tricky era to reproduce, a subdued transitional Beaux Arts-ish period between elaborate Victorian styles and the radical Art Deco designs and flapper styles to come.) Zbigniew Preisner's sweeping score appropriately soars, and Michael Coulter's camera work complements Sturridge's carefully nuanced direction.
     And as for the all-important fairies, they are absolutely convincing.

A Fairy Tale--A True Story, 1997. PG, for brief, mild language. A Paramount Pictures presentation of an Icon Productions/Wendy Finerman production. Director Charles Sturridge. Producers Finerman and Bruce Davey. Executive producer Paul Tucker. Screenplay Ernie Contreras; story by Albert Ash & Tom McLoughlin and Contreras. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Peter Coulson. Costumes Shirley Russell. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Production designer Michael Howells. Art director Sam Riley. Set decorator Totty Whately. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Florence Hoath as Elsie Wright. Elizabeth Earl as Frances Griffiths. Paul McGann as Arthur Wright. Phoebe Nicholls as Polly Wright. Peter O'Toole as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini.

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