'FairyTale' wings it as light-as-air joy

October 24, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"FairyTale: A True Story" may not make you believe in fairies, but it will make you want to believe in fairies, an even more pleasant feat.

Based on events that began unfolding in 1917, "FairyTale" is the story of two British girls who claimed to have photographed fairies flitting about a tiny stream near their home. The girls' story caused quite a stir in post-World War I England, with no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle defending the pictures' authenticity. In reality, the girls years later admitted the photographs were a hoax (although both maintained their belief in fairies and the younger girl, to her dying day, maintained that one of the photos was real).

Thankfully, director Charles Sturridge (TV's "Gulliver's Travels") and screenwriter Ernie Contreras aren't all that interested in the historical record. What they are interested in is fairies, and why people find it so difficult to believe in things they can't see or

even some things they do.

Thirteen-year-old Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl), are growing in an England that could use a healthy dose of unreality, still reeling as it is from The Great War. Both girls have suffered their own tragedies: Elsie lost her brother, Joseph, to disease, while Frances, who grew up in South Africa, comes to live with her aunt and uncle after her father is declared missing in action.

Both girls are old enough to know what loss is -- while Frances may not know what a euphemism is, she suspects missing doesn't really mean missing -- but young enough not to wallow in it. After all, there are the fairies to contend with.

It was Joseph who first discovered the fairies, wondrous little creatures with magical powers who fly from point A to point B on dragonfly wings (the film's special effects are seamless). He introduced them to Elsie, who then shows them off to Frances.

Because the fairies have a welcome habit of making troubles disappear, the girls decide to show them to Elsie's mom, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls), who cannot stop mourning the death of her son. Since the older woman won't venture down to the stream, however, the girls borrow a camera and photograph the creatures.

The pictures do wonders for Polly, who desperately wants to believe in magic and the occult; it's the only way she'll ever be able to contact her son again. She takes them to a meeting of the London Theosophical Society, which embraces them as proof mystical beings do exist.

When Sir Arthur (Peter O'Toole) sees them, he, too, believes. Not so his friend Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), who's spent his life exposing fraudulent spiritualists and fake mystics. The two men eventually meet the girls and struggle to grasp the true meaning of the pictures.

Both Hoath, at 13 a film and TV veteran, and Earl, in her film debut, do well at playing their characters as girls, not as adorable wide-eyed moppets or as wise-beyond-their-years young women. Nicholls and Paul McGann (as her husband, Arthur) bring welcome gravity to their roles as adults who know they should be skeptical, but

Cast-wise, the real delight is in seeing old warhorses O'Toole and Keitel in roles that don't demand much beyond their reassuring presence, a quality both actors are happy to provide. O'Toole is a joy wherever he pops up these days, while Keitel is obviously enjoying a role where, for once, he doesn't have to drop his drawers, shoot someone's head off or otherwise singlehandedly account for a film's R rating.

"FairyTale: A True Story" is the kind of film they supposedly don't make any more, a light-as-air flight of fancy that betrays only the most fleeting hint of cynicism or mean-spiritedness. Like its spiritual forebears reaching all the way back to J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" -- a performance of which Frances is watching as the film opens -- it suggests the great misfortune of growing up is not that you stop believing in magic, but that you feel you have to.

You don't, of course. "FairyTale" is proof that, in movies at least, magic remains very possible.

'FairyTale: A True Story'

Starring Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl, Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel

Directed by Charles Sturridge

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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