There’s a very telling moment in FairyTale: A True Story where a young girl asks Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, if he has ever told anyone how he does his tricks. “Never,” Houdini replies, “and I never will.” Then with a wink in his voice, Houdini adds, “Of course, most people don’t really want to know how you’ve done them anyway.”
It is at that level that the “true story” of FairyTale is approached. The movie is based on the lives of British cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who created an escape for war-torn England by taking photos which, they claimed, showed real fairies. Needless to say, the movie doesn’t quite tell the true story. It has since been shown that the photographs were faked. And yet, do we really want to know how, or even if, they faked the photos?
As if to drive this point home, the movie opens with Elsie attending a performance of Peter Pan. Since this is the same motif that began Steven Spielberg’s Hook, we know we’re not in a for a searing docudrama. Still, Elsie’s family could use a few fairies. Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia, and Frances’ father has sent her to live with Elsie while he fights in World War I.
Frances turns out to be a liberating force. When, at her first day in Elsie’s school, she is questioned at length about her previous home of Africa, she ends the class’ quizzing with, “Are there any more stupid questions?” Later she confiscates a camera from Elsie’s dad, and she and Elsie take the infamous photos, which come to the attention of no less than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Doyle’s pal Houdini.
The fairies themselves take somewhat of a backseat in the story. Apart from a few terrific shots of the fairies in flight, they don’t have much in the way of personality. But after a while, you begin to realize that’s beside the point. The question is, why are there always naysayers who want the real world to intrude upon the innocent fun of childhood?
Apart from the charming Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel as Doyle and Houdini, there are no big-name stars in the cast, but there are also no bum performances. As the cousins, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl are the best sort of natural child performers, completely unadorned by Hollywood affectations. And Phoebe Nicholls is endearing as Elsie’s mother, whose faith in life is restored by the whimsical photos.
Admittedly, the movie does take a while to get to its (beautifully realized) climax, and some younger audience members might get restless before the end. Personally, I was so grateful for a family movie which didn’t talk down to me, I began to believe that FairyTale might indeed be a gift from the little blighters.