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Too Much Magic

Fairytale is charming, inspiring -- and almost entirely fraudulent

The true-life incident of the Cottingley fairies is so full of possibilities, so thought-provoking and hilarious at once, that it's amazing it's never been the subject of a film before. Now, making up for lost time, the story has suddenly appeared (on its 80th anniversary) as the basis for two different movies. Photographing Fairies, with Ben Kingsley, opened in England about a month ago; in the U.S., however, director Charles Sturridge's Fairytale -- A True Story has beaten it into the theaters.

Sturridge has fashioned a charming, sometimes inspiring confection, one lushly photographed and driven by yet another first-rate score by Zbigniew Preisner (the man behind the music in The Double Life of Veronique and The Secret Garden). Taken in the abstract, he has done a lovely job. But given the marketing and (more important) the title, it's hard to overlook just how fraudulent the project is.

A little historical background is essential: In 1917, two cousins, ten-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright, presented to Wright's parents two photographs they'd taken that showed them in the company of fairies and gnomes in a nearby glen. The Wrights were skeptical, but two years later, Mrs. Wright gave prints of the photos to Edward L. Gardner of the then-popular Theosophical Society. Through Gardner, the story reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become obsessed with spiritualism after the death of his son. Conan Doyle encouraged Gardner to give new cameras to the girls, in the hope that they could prove themselves by coming up with new fairy portraits.

The cousins produced three new pictures: All five were enthusiastically accepted as genuine by Conan Doyle, who wrote about them in Strand magazine. His account used false names, but the girls' true identities were quickly discovered. As claims and counterclaims about the pictures' authenticity flew, they became the center of one of the greatest science-versus-superstition controversies of the early 20th century.

In broad outline, Sturridge's version of the story is reasonably accurate. He compresses the time frame somewhat and makes Elsie (Florence Hoath) three years younger than she actually was. And in order to suggest that Frances (Elizabeth Earl) needed to believe in the fairies because of the disappearance of her father (Mel Gibson, in a two-second appearance), he had to change the chronology of certain events. He gives roughly equal time to Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), the true believer, and Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), the open-minded skeptic, although the latter's actual involvement was tangential.

But the central artistic choice here raises both aesthetic and ethical questions. To wit, the film insists unambiguously that the fairies were real -- despite the fact that the photos were patently fraudulent from the get-go and that, some 60 years after the event, Frances and Elsie, both old ladies, finally admitted that they had faked at least four of the five. (In his book Flim-Flam!, written before these admissions, the Amazing Randi presented an almost entirely accurate analysis of how the first four photographs were made. He also gave a plausible interpretation and reasonable proof about how the fifth photo came to be -- an interpretation that would explain why the cousins omitted it from their confession.)

I have no desire to piss on Santa Claus or to declaw the bogeyman; fairy tales and scary tales are just dandy in my book, for both children and adults. But on some level, flights of fancy have to be acknowledged as such. Otherwise, they can encourage life decisions based on astrology, tea leaves, false prophets and dubious deities. Human need and gullibility cannot be underestimated, as the true Cottingley events made clear; Conan Doyle was not the only person of intelligence and education to will himself into accepting these absurdly crude fakes as the real thing.

But Sturridge's presentation of the fairies' existence is absolute: There is no strong subjective point of view or flashback structure to suggest that we're seeing someone's internal reconstruction of the events, and the audience is treated to scenes of the fairies cavorting about even when the girls aren't around.

There are only three skeptical voices in the entire film: Mr. Wright, who eventually becomes a believer; John Ferret (Tim McInnerny), a sniveling, intrusive reporter, whose cynicism is also eventually vanquished; and Houdini, the most interesting of the characters, who remains open and friendly without ever embracing "the truth" that is so apparent to everyone else.

If this were a wholly made-up story, such an approach would be fine. But historical events deserve more respect. And adding the gratuitous subtitle A True Story only exacerbates the problem.

Still, even if we ignore the issues of historical responsibility, Sturridge's film, however appealing, is a case study in missed opportunities. The actual happenings raise a bundle of fascinating issues: the conflict between the scientific age and generations of magical beliefs, the relative merits of comforting lies and dispiriting truths, the rise of irrational beliefs in the wake of a traumatic war and the problems of "evidence" in basic matters of faith. Not to mention the unreliability of photographs as proof and the nature of "proof" in general, the extraordinary power of willful self-deception and the horrors of celebrity in the exploding world of mass media.

These are just the issues that leap to mind; there are others -- all of them neutralized by Sturridge's insistence on the literal truth of the cousins' lies. An ambiguous position would have allowed the film to tackle one or all of them; even a steadfastly unmagical one would have left room for most.

With luck, Photographing Fairies will tackle some of these points. In the meanwhile, we have Sturridge's film -- which provokes pleasure, but little thought.

Fairytale -- A True Story.
Directed by Charles Sturridge. With Florence Hoath, Elizabeth Earl, Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel.

Rated PG.
99 minutes.

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