Fairy Tale: A True Story
directed by Charles Sturridge
(Paramount, 1997)

Peter O'Toole has made lots of films in his 36-year career: the good (Lion in Winter), the bad (Club Paradise) and the ugly (Night of the Generals). Yet he's probably best remembered for his first big screen role, the flamboyant Lawrence of Arabia.

Now he's back as a very different historical figure of the same period, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in an unusual fantasy film based on actual events, Fairy Tale: A True Story.

Fairy Tale is true in that it relates the story of two young English girls, Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl) and Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) who claim to have taken pictures of fairies in a glen near Elsie's Yorkshire home.

The pictures cause a deep divide in the Wright home: they're championed by Elsie's mother, Polly, who can't stop grieving for her son, Joseph, who died of pneumonia at a young age. But they become the bane of existence for Elsie's father, Arthur (Paul McGann), an engineer and a proponent of scientific rationalism.

Word of the pictures soon gets out, and they attract the attention of theosophist Edward Gardner (Bill Nighy), who's on a campaign to prove the existence of spirits; Doyle, who's been using a psychic to reach his own dead son; and Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), who enjoys using his illusionist wiles to expose fraudulent mediums.

Soon all of England is embroiled in the debate that splits the Wright household.

For all its big guns, historical and histrionic, Fairy Tale is a small film that works in subtle ways. From its opening scenes of Houdini freeing himself from a straitjacket to its final invasion of the fairies, director Charles Sturridge dishes up one pleasing surprise after another, not the least of which is classical score that lets the film move as if it were a ballet instead of a history lesson.

At the center of this graceful dance are Earl and Hoath, two young performers whose performances are so real that it never for a moment seems like they're acting. If ever child performers have been more convincing, they've done it when I wasn't looking.

Then, too, there's Ernie Contreras' script, which is as literate and multilayered as Moby Dick, but a lot more accessible. Through the historical events, Contreras weaves such themes as rationalism vs. faith, the struggle against growing up, the need to believe and the pain of loss -- at a time when millions were dying on the battlefields of Europe, and millions more in influenza and pneumonia wards back home.

Fairy Tale is as small as Titanic is big; how it missed being nominated for just as many awards is beyond me. With its seamless combination of people and fairies, its lush green camerawork, its subtle use of shadow and color and its honest examination of questions far beyond the obvious, Fairy Tale is more than a A True Story. It's a real experience -- and a real joy to watch.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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