Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997)   

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


Do you believe in fairies? In the early 1920's two girls set out to prove their existence to the world. Sixteen year old Elsie Wright and her cousin, ten year old Frances Griffiths, provided some astonishing photographs that soon captivated a nation and heated up the debate over whether or not fairies exist. The images of the two girls in the glade behind their home playing with fairies remained a mystery to scholars and skeptics for over seventy years before, at the age of eighty-eight, Elsie admitted to having forged them. In a history-rewriting attempt and a means to give the children more merit, this film by Paramount explores the magical side of the story of Elsie and Frances.


Some of the facts, such as the ages of the children, have been changed, but otherwise the historical characters remain much as they were. The result is a beautifully written, directed, and acted film all ages will enjoy. The film opens with the great Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) mystifying audiences with a death-defying escape from a straight jacket, suspended upside-down in the air over New York. In attendance to the performance is the great author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole)), whose Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand have made him a household name. A self-professed mystic, Doyle is intrigued by Houdini's slight of hand. Houdini, however, is much against the nature of spiritualism and is determined to prove that mediums and other ghost experts are fake. Little do both men know that their belief system will soon be shaken by two imaginative little girls in the north of England...


The Wright family has been touched by tragedy. Elsie's older brother has gone to his grave prematurely of a fever, and her mother is devastated over the loss. Dealing with their own family grief, they must also open their arms to cousin Francis (Elizabeth Earl), whose father is 'missing in action' in France. The bright-eyed, clever little girl swiftly makes herself at home, intrigued by Elsie's (Florence Hoath) lavish fairy house and the shadowy glen behind the cottage. In an attempt to cheer up Mrs. Wright, the girls decide to prove to her that fairies do exist and therefore her son, who was infatuated with them, did not spend his time idly making up stories. 'Borrowing' Mr. Wright's box camera, the girls take several photographs down in the glade. The result are several amateur photos which Mr. Wright (Paul McGann) develops in the darkroom. Surely they won't come out ... the girls don't know how to work a camera!


To his great surprise, the smiling face of his daughter is surrounded by tiny, glimmering beings with jeweled wings. Mr. Wright knows that somehow it's a wonderful trick, but his wife sees and believes. She takes copies of the photos to scientific-minded skeptics and they are proven genuine. They are then passed on to Arthur Conan Doyle, who expresses a desire to meet with the children in an attempt to unearth whether or not it is some kind of clever trick. The illustrious group which travels to their small home to investigate is made up of a wide variety of different opinions... the skeptic, the believer, the scientist, the man of faith. Although opposing in view, none will ever forget the Wright girls... or their captivating hold over English readers. This delightful story brings a more innocent world into perspective. A time of lingering candlelight, magic shows, and literary giants. A world whose innocence allowed them to accept and even embrace the cleverness of two little girls. Although the film insists fairies do actually exist (they are seen fluttering over streams and down chimneys), much of the historical ties are intact. Arthur Conan Doyle did in fact visit the Wright home and also penned the book on fairies referenced in the movie's latter half. Houdini was not directly involved, but his anti-spiritualist measures were very much a part of his slight of hand.


The film is delightful although not perfect. One touching scene involves Frances befriending a hideously scarred Corporal (played by Anton Lesser) on a train. Visually lush, the gorgeous countryside stands out brilliantly on film and although now dated, the special effects are exceptional for their time. The director has done a wonderful job with the filming; I would dearly love to know how some of his camera sweeps were accomplished. The acting is also very solid. Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl bring Elsie and Frances to life while a cast of acting greats steps into the shoes of historical characters... Peter O'Toole makes a fine Doyle, and Harvey Keitel is likable as Houdini. There's also a surprising cameo by Mel Gibson. The film is very acceptable for family viewing, but contains some warped issues of spirituality which I intend to elaborate on. Fairies are often linked with other supernatural beliefs of the time, including angels.


While a sweet gesture, the two are hardly in the same field. You can doubt the existence of one and yet believe in the other; this film seems to make the two inseparable. When a child in the hospital asks Elsie to ask the fairies to make him feel better, she replies that he would do better to ask his guardian angel. Mrs. Wright attends a meeting in which the existence of angels and fairies is debated. The banner across the state states blatantly, 'There is no higher religion than science.' Arthur Conan Doyle states to Houdini that he was able to talk to his son two weeks after his death with the aid of a spiritualist. Houdini performs a magic trick at a society dinner in which those in attendance believe a spirit is aiding him. He firmly insists that it is all just a trick. The most unusual and creepy of these scenes involves a reporter breaking in to the Wright home to try and dig up evidence the girls are making it all up. After trying to make off with some of Elsie's brother's drawings, the room flies into a pandemonium -- books are yanked off the shelves, the windows are thrown wide, the door slams shut, and the lamp is extinguished. The viewer assumes it is the fairies... or is it? To the reporter's astonishment, a vision or ghost of Elsie's brother appears at the desk and walks straight through him.


Overall it was a beautiful film, very enjoyable to watch despite its minor flaws. Younger children may not appreciate the storyline, which deals with grief, loss, and imagination, but will be enchanted with the fairies. I wish less emphasis would have been placed on my favorite author's unfortunate spiritual leanings but as it stands, Fairytale is certainly memorable.