Pander 4 (Winter 1998)
Fairy Tale: A True Story, directed by Charles Sturridge, screenplay by Ernie Cantreras, music by Zbigniew Preisner – with Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Avon, Phoebe Nicholls, Paul McGann, Peter O’Toole – (UK, 1997).
Charles Sturridge, ed.: Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997)
The ghastliness of the trailer has to be seen to be believed – gossamer-winged fairies flying in all directions, buffoons falling in streams, Yankish voices braying vile calumnies. It’s enough to put off anyone except desperate parents in the middle of the school holidays. What happens if you actually go and see the film?
About half an hour in, my companion leant across to me and whispered “This is really good!” Later still, “I’m enjoying this.” The smoky sepia-tones of the photography, the sure grasp of narrative line, the delicacy of the storytelling – territory where one foot wrong can never be recovered – seemed to be adding up to something truly extraordinary. Then, as the last vista faded out, all was explained. The single phrase “Charles Sturridge” came up on the screen.
No, you may not remember the name, but the man who directed “Brideshead Revisited” is no slouch with the camera. More to the point, I was privileged to attend the première of his film A Handful of Dust (remembered best, I suppose, for launching the career of Kristin Scott Thomas) in 1987. The man himself was there, and in the discussion afterwards, showed impressive good humour and intelligence (unlike David Hare, whose Paris by Night I had gone to the week before – when a hearty Glaswegian in the audience suggested retitling it “Naked Tory,” he could only gasp and splutter in reply). Someone tried to put Charles similarly on the spot by asking him why English filmmakers were stuck in a rut of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster adaptations. “Well, that’s because American studios will pay us to make them,” he replied. “If they’d pay for more contemporary films, I’d make those instead.” He went on to explain the facts of life very kindly and simply.
Nor were these hollow words. Any of you who had the misfortune to see the film Aria, which consisted of a series of short segments by famous directors inspired by operatic arias (most of which seemed to show naked blondes killing themselves), will remember one masterly sequence in black and white showing a group of children stealing a car for a joyride. Charles Sturridge again. The man can do anything.
Retelling the story of the Cottingley fairies puts his abilities to the test, though. It is, on the face of it, not promising material for a screenplay. In most accounts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shows up as (at best) a credulous buffoon, (at worst) a crass vulgarian; the girls as designing little minxes; and the rest of the world as fools. Ernie Cantreras, author of the screenplay, chooses first of all to emphasise the context.
We are deep in the First World War, and spiritualism is flourishing as never before – it is a world of Theosophists, Mons angels, and grieving parents. On one side we have the master illusionist, Harry Houdini (played with his usual protean efficiency by Harvey Keitel), intent on exposing fakes. On the other we have Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole), deep in mourning for his own son, dead on the Somme, who has put his immense reputation as the creator of Sherlock Holmes into the cause of anti-materialism.
The first of many electrifying moments occurs when Phoebe Nicholls, mother of twelve-year-old Iris and aunt of eight-year-old Frances comes home in tears from a futile meeting to find the first of the famous photographs lying on the kitchen table. The girls flee in terror, her husband (Paul McGann), convinced that the pictures must be fakes, tries to head her off. How will she react? We expect rage, hysteria, indignation. Instead, her face lights up with joy. We see at once the need she has to believe in the possibility of seeing her dead son once again.
The subtlety of this (and of the film as a whole) requires some analysis to be understood, little to be felt. On the one hand, it justifies the girls’ deceit – they did it for her. Nor are the photos really fakes, as they are both convinced that they do see fairies down by the beck (so do we). Nor is she is not stereotypically credulous. Only after various experts have denounced the possibility of photographic trickery does she finally admit full belief.
The way in which the film explains how the photographs were taken is also a masterpiece of cinematic rhetoric. Three scenes are intercut: the father’s chess game against an allegedly “mute” opponent; Houdini’s escape from the tank of water he is suspended in; and the wicked reporter Ferret’s burglarising the family house. Game, escape, and come-uppance are achieved simultaneously in such a way as to tell us both how the fake was done, and why the news did not come out till fifty years later. It must be seen to be believed.
My sole criticism of this film which (for me) moves immediately to the status of children’s classic, alongside Baron Munchausen and Tiger Bay, consists of asking what audience it is really intended for. It is a great film about children (like A High Wind in Jamaica), but is not really for them. The inclusion of fairies is almost the only concession to viewers who cannot appreciate the social history of the epoch, and that probably rules out many of the rest of us as well. I loved it. I fear it will not make Charles Sturridge a household name. Please, someone, let him keep on making films like this one.