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.