The true-life story of the Cottingley Fairies is so full of possibilities, so thought-provoking and hilarious at once, that it's amazing it's never been filmed before. Making up for lost time, the incident has suddenly appeared (on its 80th anniversary) as the basis for two films simultaneously. Photographing Fairies, with Ben Kingsley, opened in England about a month ago; in the U.S., however, director Charles Sturridge's FairyTale: A True Story, from Paramount, has beat it into the theaters.
Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited, Where Angels Fear to Tread) has fashioned a charming, sometimes inspiring confection, lushly photographed and driven by yet another first-rate Zbigniew Preisner score (The Double Life of Veronique, Secret Garden). Taken in the abstract, he has done a lovely job. But, given the marketing and (more important) the title, it's hard to overlook just how fraudulent the project is.
A little historical background is essential: In 1917, two cousins, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright, presented to Wright's parents two photographs they'd taken, showing them in the company of fairies and gnomes in a nearby glen. The Wrights were skeptical, but two years later, Mrs. Wright gave prints of the photos to Edward L. Gardner of the then-popular Theosophical Society. Through Gardner, the story reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become obsessed with spiritualism after the death of his son. Conan Doyle encouraged Gardner to give new cameras to the girls, in hopes they could prove themselves by coming up with new fairy portraits.
The cousins produced three new photos: All five were enthusiastically accepted as genuine by Conan Doyle, who wrote about them in the Strand magazine. His account used false names, but the girls' true identities were quickly discovered. As claims and counterclaims about the pictures' authenticity flew, they became the center of one of the greatest science-vs.-superstition controversies of the early 20th century.
In broad outline, Sturridge's version of the story is reasonably accurate: He compresses the time frame somewhat and makes Elsie (Florence Hoath) three years younger. In order to suggest that Frances (Elizabeth Earl) needs to believe in the fairies because of the disappearance of her father (a two-second appearance by Mel Gibson), he has to change the order of events. He gives roughly equal time to Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), the True Believer, and Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), the Open-Minded Skeptic, although the latter's actual involvement was tangential.
But the central artistic choice here raises both aesthetic and ethical questions. To wit, the film insists unambiguously that the fairies were real, allowing not a shadow of a doubt--despite that the photos were patently fraudulent from the git-go and that, some 60 years after the event, Frances and Elsie, both old ladies, finally admitted that they had faked at least four of the five. (In his book Flim-Flam!, written before these admissions, the Amazing Randi presents an almost entirely accurate analysis of how the first four photographs were made. He also gives a plausible interpretation and reasonable proof about how the fifth photo came to be--one that would explain the cousins' omitting it from their confessions.)
I have no desire to piss on Santa Claus or to declaw the bogeyman; fairy tales and scary tales are just dandy in my book, for both children and adults. But flights of fancy have to be acknowledged as such, on some level. Otherwise, they can encourage life decisions based on astrology, tea leaves, false prophets and dubious deities. Human need and gullibility cannot be underestimated, as the true Cottingley events made clear; Conan Doyle was not the only person of intelligence and education to will himself into accepting these absurdly crude fakes as the real thing.
Sturridge's presentation of the fairies' existence is absolute: There is no strong subjective point of view or flashback structure to suggest that we are seeing someone's internal reconstruction of the events, and the audience is treated to scenes of the fairies cavorting, even when the girls are not around.
There are only three skeptical voices in the film: Mr. Wright (Paul McGann), who eventually becomes a believer; Ferret (Tim McInnerny), a sniveling, intrusive reporter, whose cynicism is also eventually vanquished; and Houdini, the most interesting of the characters, who remains open and friendly, without ever embracing "the truth" that is so apparent to everyone else.
If this were a wholly made-up story, such an approach would be fine. But historical events deserve more respect. And appending the gratuitous subtitle A True Story only exacerbates the problem.
Still, even if we ignore the issues of historical responsibility, Sturridge's film, however appealing, is a case study in missed opportunities. There is a bundle of fascinating issues raised by the actual happenings: the conflict between the scientific age and generations of magical beliefs, the relative merits of comforting lies and dispiriting truths, the rise of irrational beliefs in the wake of a traumatic war, and the problems of "evidence" in basic matters of faith. Not to mention: the unreliability of photographs as proof and the nature of "proof" in general, the extraordinary power of willful self-deception, and the horrors of celebrity in the exploding world of mass media.
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Those are just the ones that leap to mind; there are others--all of them neutralized by Sturridge's insistence on the literal truth of the cousins' lies. An ambiguous position would have allowed for the film to tackle one or all of them; even a steadfastly unmagical one would have left room for most.
With luck, Photographing Fairies will tackle some of these issues. In the meanwhile, we have Sturridge's version -- which provokes pleasure but little thought.
FairyTale: A True Story
Directed by Charles Sturridge.