Published November 1, 1997
Fairy Tale by Charles Sturridge tells the story—sort of—of the fairy-photograph hoax perpetrated by a couple of young girls in Yorkshire in 1917-18. Now if you are going to do this on film, this way of doing it, with a bunch of ostensibly real fairies buzzing about on dragonfly wings, is probably the best way to do it. Which is of course not the same thing as saying that it should have been done. In fact I don’t think it should have been done. But if the truth of the hoax had been told, it wouldn’t have made for much of a movie. The solution of Sturridge and his screenwriter, Ernie Contreras, is to leave the question open, as to the photographs, and to come down firmly on the side of the fairies and the girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths (Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl) everywhere else.
Even the great skeptic Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) is made to offer as his words of wisdom to the girls the warning that “Masters of illusion never reveal their tricks.” Anyway, he says, “No one wants to know when I do tell them.” The result is that the real-life conflict between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole), who took up the girls’ case and had the photographs published as genuine in The Strand magazine, all but completely disappears. Instead, he and Houdini are seen as pals and even accomplices in the girls’ imposture. This is partly out of sympathy for Elsie and her parents (Paul McGann and Phoebe Nicholls), whose son Joseph, Elsie’s older brother, had died the year before.
This death, together with Frances’s father’s going missing in action in France, also leads us into the film’s real theme. For the fairies are linked—by way of the great stage hit of the period, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Conan Doyle’s spiritualism and the Great War raging in Europe (in which he had lost a son)—to the attenuated and rather desperate belief among the masses of the bereaved in England in some kind of life after death. Such linking is a stroke of genius and lends many of the film’s most charming moments an emotional something verging on real poignancy. Who can restrain himself from cheering at the discomfiture by mysterious supernatural forces of the skeptical journalist, Ferret (Tim McInnerny), as he seeks to discover and print the Truth about the Fairies?
It is only after some moments of reflection, perhaps, that we will return to our more settled and mature conviction that, in fact, the Truth is rather a good thing after all.