Fairy Tale: A True Story (review)

Do You Believe in Magic?

Fairy Tale: A True Story (starring Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl, Peter O’Toole, Harvey Keitel) is one of those films that critics call “magical.” It is a charming movie full of great performances — especially from its two grade-school stars — but it has a new-agey undertone that probably offends only me.

In the English countryside during World War I, two girls — 12-year-old Elsie (Hoath) and her cousin 8-year-old Frances (Earl) — take photographs of what they insist are fairies. The photos come to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (O’Toole), a believer, who shows them to his friend Harry Houdini (Keitel), a skeptic, and the two end up making celebrities out of the girls and the pictures.
It’s the subtitle of the movie that bothers me: A True Story. Fairy Tale is based on a real incident (about which Conan Doyle wrote a book called The Coming of the Fairies), one that has been discounted as a hoax — the real-life girls faked the photos using paper-cutout fairies. But it spoils nothing to tell you that in the film, fairies are a reality, flapping their little gossamer wings and flittering about.

I was not expecting a documentary from Fairy Tale, and I don’t mean to criticize the film per se — it really is wonderful and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But I’m afraid there are too many people in the world who don’t know the difference between magic in the literal sense and magic in the figurative sense.

Fairy Tale plays on the old idea that children have an unspoiled perspective on the world that allows them to see magic everywhere: fairies or angels or the Easter Bunny or what have you. As a metaphor, it works as a reminder to us: If more adults kept the sense of wonder most of us had as children, the world would be a lot more fun (and I’d have more people to play with). But I worry about people of voting age who actually believe in fairies or call psychic hotlines or panic when Mercury is in Scorpio. And I think our society fosters people like that because of another idea that Fairy Tale highlights: rational people are bad or at least somewhat lacking in the soul department.

For example: Elsie’s father, Arthur (Paul McGann), is skeptical of the fairy photos. He’s also a champion chess player — chess, that game that computers play now. A better example: There’s a snoopy reporter named — get this — Ferret. Hardly the most complimentary of names. Ferret is the only character shown to be trying to actually discover the truth about the photos, and he is cast as the villain.

Houdini, a moderate voice of reason in Fairy Tale, acknowledges that his tricks are not “magic,” but he refuses to reveal to other characters how he performs them. He understands that people need a feeling of mystery even as they understand that they aren’t seeing something supernatural. Sneakily, though, the film audience is made privy to some of his secrets while we are never witness to the girls performing their “tricks” — photographing the fairies (even though fairies do appear on the screen). The effect is to make Houdini appear a con man while the girls remain virtuous.

I wish Fairy Tale left us questioning whether the fairies were real, whether the girls faked their photos. We could have forgiven them their hoax, because — like Houdini — they returned a sense of wonder to some adults who’d forgotten it.

Instead, I left the movie feeling just the teensiest bit unsatisfied, just the littlest bit jerked around. Wish I could have kept my sense of wonder.

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