Fairy Tale (1997)

World War I rages in Europe, and wounded soldiers return to England by the trainload. Harry Houdini thrills London crowds with his spectacular stunts and illusions, while at the York Theatre, enthralled children clap heartily to save Tinkerbell. That's the psychological setting of *FairyTale: A True Story*, a charming and delightful film about the 1917 controversy surrounding two Yorkshire girls who took photographs of what appeared to be real fairies. The incident sparked an international debate that left many prominent figures genuinely convinced that fairies do exist.

*FairyTale* takes the position that the fairies are real, but the "true story" of the movie is less about sprites than about spirits -- human spirits, that is. England in 1917 is a country deeply wounded by the horrors of war. Many have lost loved ones, many more have lost their youth and their limbs in battle -- there is a great need to recapture the joy and innocence of childhood, to find something good in which to believe. The fairies of Yorkshire Beck, real or not, fulfill that need.

Frances (Elizabeth Earl) comes to Yorkshire to live with her cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) after her soldier father is declared missing. Elsie and her parents, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls) and Arthur (Paul McGann) are themselves mourning the death of Elsie's young brother Joseph. Although the concerns of the world are thrust upon Frances, she refuses to allow her childhood to be stolen. She believes that she, like Joseph, can call out the fairies that live in the garden. Elsie is old enough to be slightly skeptical, but she is soon swayed by Frances' boundless enthusiasm. Not so the elder Wrights, who caution the girls against believing in the unbelievable. "Grown ups don't know how to believe," Frances tells her aunt.

But Polly, shattered by the death of her son, is quickly disabused of disbelief when the girls photograph the fairies. Through her, the pictures land in the hands of renowned Theosophist E.L. Gardner (Bill Nighy), who has them authenticated. Gardner shows them to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who is convinced they are true. He, in turn, shows them to his friend Houdini (Harvey Keitel), an illusionist who knows too many tricks to be anything but a skeptic. But Houdini also knows and respects that people want and need to believe illusions much more than they want or need to know the truth.

Sir Arthur makes the girls and their fairies a cause celebre, and soon all of England has fairy mania (which, incidentally, doesn't go over well with the fairies). In the midst of the sometimes comical fairy-hunting, *FairyTale*, as directed by Charles Sturridge, doesn't lose sight of what the people are really hunting. *FairyTale* doesn't dumb down on the assumption that children (and adults) aren't smart enough to follow a story with a real point. Although *FairyTale* is a movie about children who see fairies, it is about much more than that, including *why* they see fairies. Frances and Elsie, while they live in an idyllic world of fairy rings and bubbling becks, also live in the world of war and loss and death, and they need, no less than the adults around them, to believe in childish things. Whether their photographs are authentic or not is really beside the point.

With a minimum of special effects (there are probably not enough fairies in the film to satisfy very young children), *FairyTale* focuses most on real people, the somewhat mysterious and secretive Frances and Elsie, and the skeptics and believers around them, instead of the wee winged people of the woods. The top drawer cast gives fine and insightful performances all around, while the script by Ernie Contreras nicely juggles different points of view in a perceptive and illuminating way. Despite the sometimes melancholy tone of *FairyTale*, the movie is sweet and utterly charming, capturing both the broken spirit of the times and the infectious, appealing Peter Pan spirit of childhood. Mixing genuine magic and illusion, knowledge and naivete, hope and despair, philosophy and faith, *FairyTale: A True Story* movingly touches on human truths, with a few wild assumptions about fairy folk thrown in just for fun.


Sunday (1997)

*Sunday* opens with a chaotic blur of sights and sounds reminiscent of the way the world feels when you're only half awake -- nothing quite makes sense, voices and noises are explosively loud then fade into obscurity, photons stab through the slit of barely open eyes, and none of connections in your brain close all the way. It's the most confusing, annoying part of the day, and the way the world looks on a particular Sunday morning to Oliver, skulking under covers at a homeless men's shelter. Oliver is a misfit in this place of misfits -- he doesn't quite belong among these particular down and outers.

Out on the street, Oliver (David Suchet) encounters Madeleine (Lisa Harrow), an unemployed British actress, toting a half-dead palm tree, who mistakes him for film director Matthew Delacorta. He plays along -- something about Madeleine's hungry desperation forces him to embrace the falsehood for her sake, if not his own.

For the rest of a strange, emotionally charged Sunday, both Oliver and Madeleine cling to deception, wallowing in denial out of a persistent need to believe that the circumstances they find themselves in are not really their own, that the aimless Sundays of their everyday existence don't really belong to them. They are merely playing roles, like actors trapped in an Italian neo-realist movie, lying to each other, and to themselves, investing their considerable egos in the belief, against all evidence, that they are only pretending at lives that are beneath them. He's not really a homeless man, just an unemployed IBMer down on his luck, or, perhaps, a famous film director researching a film on a down-and-out IBMer. She's not really an unsuccessful actress, just a displaced Brit stuck in Queens, far from the footlights of the RSC.

*Sunday* is full of secrets and half-truths, mysteries that are never fully illuminated. Both Madeleine and Oliver, with their slight touches of gentility, are so out of place in their settings that it's easy to believe that they really do belong somewhere else, in some other life. Yet, they often reveal their true desperation in hungry sex and passionate conversations. Vignettes of the aimless lives of other men from the homeless shelter, rather than providing contrast, tend to emphasize how much Madeleine and Oliver really are lost, how much they are like the people they can't bear to associate with.

*Sunday*, written by Woodstockers Jonathan Nossiter, who also directs, and James Lasdun, took the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Cramped locations and natural, wintry light add to the gritty realism and bleakness of this emotionally stark film, but persistent problems with boom mics dropping into the frame are an unwanted distraction, a telltale sign of this otherwise accomplished film's low budget.

What *Sunday* does *not* suffer from is amateurish acting. The performances of Harrow and Suchet (best known as TV's Hercule Poirot) are rich and engrossing, poignant and mysterious. Both actors crawl inside the skins of their sad, lost characters, investing them with a dignity that fuels deceptions and self-delusions that are, under the circumstances, almost heroic.


Seven Years in Tibet (1997)

You might think, from watching *Seven Years In Tibet*, that Heinrich Harrer disliked Nazis as much as he disliked his pregnant wife. You might think that young Heinrich was escaping not only impending fatherhood, but the relentless march of Hitler's armies as well, as he boarded a train bound for Tibet. As Harrer heroically scales the treacherous heights of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, it is abundantly clear that he is an egotistical, heartless and cruel bully, but it is never mentioned that he was also in Hitler's SS, and one of the Fuhrer's Aryan elite.

That inconvenient little truth came out while *Seven Years In Tibet* was being filmed, so it is not altogether surprising that this movie, based on Harrer's memoir, pretty much glosses over the fact, with naught but a vague reference to an unenlightened youth.

Instead, *Seven Years In Tibet* depicts Harrer (Brad Pitt) as a troubled, headstrong young man who eventually stumbles across the path to enlightenment with a little help from his friends. One of those friends just happens to be His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who was but a boy when Harrer and fellow mountaineer Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) found their way to the holy city of Lhasa. Goodbye Hitler, hello Dalai!

Unfortunately, Harrer doesn't get to Lhasa until about an hour and a half into the movie, and once he's on the path to true enlightenment, he takes a sharp detour. Before that, however, there's a lot of boilerplate mountain climbing drama as he attempts to scale Nanga Parbat. Then he is imprisoned in a British POW camp. After escaping that boring and uneventful place, he begins an arduous journey across the Himalayas, braving harsh weather and starvation. After reuniting with Aufschnaiter, he slowly makes his way to Tibet, where the Tibetans rightly perceive him to be a devil and attempt to shoo him out of the country. Being an arrogant Aryan, he is not easily shooed. Mind you, Harrer's journey thus far is merely a physical one involving endless climbing and trekking and thieving, during which little changes but the seasons and the shabbiness of the mountaineers' clothing. The spiritual journey, such as it is, occupies the hurried final hour of *Seven Years In Tibet*, during which Harrer experiences a change of what little heart he apparently possesses, thanks to the wise guidance of Kundun, the boy Dalai Lama.

Pitt's Harrer is a callow fellow, and his purported enlightenment isn't especially deep or convincing. That isn't just because Pitt is not an especially deep or convincing actor, although once again, he belabors a feeble accent, this time a vaguely Austrian one that is no better than the Irish brogue he mangled in *The Devil's Own*. Pitt looks the part of the arrogant Aryan at the start of *Seven Years*, but after a few years in a POW camp, and a few more in the wilderness, he begins to look just like Brad Pitt the scruffy, unwashed rebel movie star.

Thewlis fares far better as Aufschnaiter, a character who starts out more generous of spirit and so must travel a shorter spiritual path, thus making a more convincing go of it. Thewlis' Aufschnaiter, who eventually marries a Tibetan woman and embraces Tibetan culture and custom, is a quieter character who changes in deeply spiritual yet perceptible ways -- his story is far more intriguing than Harrer's, even without the Dalai Lama's presence.

Jamyang Wangchuk is wonderfully charming as the charismatic boy leader of Tibet who craves information about the larger world. He exudes gentle spirituality, childish playfulness and wisdom beyond his years in the role, and exhibits far more maturity as an actor than Pitt has managed to pull off.

The central problem of Seven Years is the point of view. Without the Dalai Lama, there's nothing very compelling or remarkable about the unlikable Harrer's life, and the His Holiness is too small a part of the movie, as scripted by Becky Johnston. Tibet's pacifist culture, guided at all times by their devout Buddhism, is not illuminated any more by being filtered through the consciousness of an Aryan pretty boy. Neither is the tragic tale of Tibet's violent occupation by China -- the subject is worthy of a movie, but it need not be seen through Western eyes, as it is here, to be appreciated. Harrer's outrage over the annexation rings a bit false, even when he confesses his own shame in an elliptical reference to his own role in similar atrocities.

But Tibet isn't really the subject of *Seven Years In Tibet*. Like other movies about Westerners in exotic lands, the setting is largely irrelevant to the actual story, and that's especially true here. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud seems to model his film after the sort of explorer movies that were fashionable during Harrer's years in Tibet -- *Seven Year* even features that silly old device, nowadays used exclusively for comic effect: a map with dashed lines showing the path taken by an intrepid explorer. To be sure, *Seven Years* doesn't have the obvious racist overtones of those old jungle adventures, although an air of amused bemusement surrounds a scene in which Buddhist monks take great pains to safeguard earthworms.

Harrer may have helped usher the Dalai Lama into the modern world, but it is Kundun's role as Harrer's surrogate son that is central to this story. Adding a modern spin to the hoary old explorer's tale, Harrer is, at least according to his voiceover diary readings, wracked by guilt over abandoning his only child. Kundun shows him the way to a father-son reconciliation that is striking mostly for its utter lack of emotion. Like Harrer, *Seven Years In Tibet* just can't fake sensitivity, compassion or spiritual grace.