Review: Photographing Fairies


Spoiler alert: If you have not yet seen Photographing Fairies, then be advised that this review reveals details of what for the sake of argument I shall call the plot.

We all remember the two little girls who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies. They stuck to the story throughout their lives, fooling a lot of grown-ups including Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. They finally came clean, as very old ladies, on an edition of Nationwide in the 1970s. The 'fairies' had been cut-out drawings, attached to the tree with long hat pins. Experts had not been able to work out how the pictures were done because they were looking for photographic, rather than mechanical, trickery. By any standard, the pictures are good special-effects.

Now, there are two perfectly good movies to be made about this hoax. One would be about how two little girls fooled a lot of grown ups. It would play with the idea of childhood innocence, of adults being reluctant to leave a private play-world which linked them, with gossip and hoax and how a lie can get out of hand and become self-perpetuating. The other would deal with the myth: it would use artistic licence, assume that the photos were genuine, and ask the question 'What would it mean if photos of supernatural entities could be taken?'

Photographing Fairies is the second film. Although there are several months still to run, it is almost certain to be awarded the 'Unmitigated Pile of Tosh' award for 1997.

To its credit, it starts off by debunking the Cottinley pictures and locates its supernatural occurrence at a different and presumably fictitious location. The debunker is Charles Castle, a photographer played by Toby Stevens, trying so hard to be Hugh Grant that it hurts to watch. He doesn't have to take more than two glances at the pictures before he is rattling off James Randi's list of flaws.

He is immediately congratulated for this piece of deduction ('worthy of Sherlock Holmes') by an Edwardian gentleman claiming to be Conan-Doyle. The audience know better: if it's Edward Hardwick, it must be Doctor Watson. Quite how this fits in with Doyle's recorded gullibility about the photos is not explained.

Five minutes later, a country vicars wife turns up at Castle's consulting room, sorry, studio, to tell him that her daughters have also been taking fey snapshots and that hers are perfectly genuine. Unlike the hoax pictures, these fairy images are very blurred: implying that they move too quickly to be seen, but can be captured on long-exposure Victorian plates. To the consternation of his chirpy cockney assistant, he spends the night experimenting on the pictures, and then catches the first stream train to Heritage England to investigate. He steps in some horseshit to remind us how realistic everything his.

Castle is, you see, a fully rounded character. He lost his newly wed wife in a melodramatic hiking accident in the Swedish Alps. Unlike Doyle (whose bereavement made him a believer in the afterlife) this has turned Castle into a sceptic and a cynic. However, if fairies are real, and if they are the messengers between this world and the next (as they aren't in traditional fairy mythology) then maybe they somehow represent a link with his dead wife. In the way of these things, he becomes obsessed with proving the little girls' story.

The fairy manifestations centre around an Old Oak Tree in a wood near their house. (This being the Olden Days, it is all right for girls to play in the woods by themselves.) They call up the fairies by performing a cute black mass involving a puppet theatre and magical flowers, implying that the fairies are either a drug hallucination, or they aren't. Their mother has also been munching the magic flower. She tells Castle that she has seen the fairies, and subsequently, while under the influence, climbs the fairy tree and falls out, breaking her neck. Mr Castle prizes one of the flowers out of her cold dead hand. In some way, time seems to speed up around him, enabling him to see the fairies. They are computer generated, naked, and drag him into a dream sequence involving a very unVictorian woman-on-top sex scene with his dead wife. Understandably, at this point, he also falls out of the tree.

Now, at this stage in the film, we are already in a steaming great mess. What is interesting about the Cottinley fairies is that they represent a classic Victorian category mistake—the idea that something presumably supernatural (fairies, the soul, moral goodness) could be analysed by scientific means (photography, spiritualism, measuring criminals skulls.) The photos are interesting because they appear to show that fairies are in fact material, rational, relatively prosaic creatures. Fairies that you can only see by magic, or a drug, or a quasi-religious ceremony would not be nearly as interesting. The point of the Cottinley fairies is that they are part of the rational, scientific world: the point of the fairies in the film is that they aren't.

The little girls father is a vicar, hammed up by Ben Kinglsey. He is a sinister figure, who talks about faith. Castle suggest that faith is a way of blinding yourself to the truth. The conflict here appears to be between Bad Old Time Religion (accept everything on faith) and Good Victorian Science (demand ocular proof). Or maybe between the sensual, emotional, bonking after life that Castle appears to have proof of, and the cold one that the Vicar talks about. When we actually see the Vicar conducting his wife's funeral (a strange service, with neither prayer book nor coffin, but the congregation don't seem to mind) what he actually preaches is pure Victorian spiritualism, or maybe Hinduism —his wife has left her shell behind, but her soul has evolved into something better; she has awoken from a dream, and we are the dream she has awoken from. This seems to be exactly what Castle thinks the fairies prove. So maybe the difference is that the bad Vicar believes without proof, but the good scientist believes with proof. I give up.

When Castle has taken his own fairy pictures, he goes back to show them to Conan-Doyle. Doyle examines the pictures with a big magnifying glass, in case we'd forgotten. Doyle can't discredit the pictures, but he doubts the after-life which Castle thinks they prove. Doyle thinks heaven is only 'a state of mind which we aspire to'; Castle thinks it is 'as real as Clacton on Sea.' In real life, the point of Doyle was that he was gullible; in the film, the point of him is that he is sceptical. I suppose if the vicar is a Hindu, its only fair that the spiritualist should be a liberal Anglican. The conflict now is between triflers like Doyle whose interest in the afterlife is purely academic (all he will do is offer to stage a debate with Castle) and good people for whom it is a living issue.

All is not well at the vicarage. Castle persuades the little girls to tell him where the magic flowers grow. But they have been off munching again, and, sure enough, one of them falls out of the tree. Ben Kingsley spots that this is a recurrent motif, and goes completely over the top. He destroys Castles camera, and chops down the tree (no mean feat, given its size and his age.) As he burns the tree, he burns the fairies as well. This upsets Castle. They have a fight. Castle accidentally impales him on a photographic tripod. He gives himself up to the police, and despite the fact that it was quite obviously accidental and he is quite obviously barking, he is hanged.

The hanging scene is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. Castle has been provided with (iced) champagne for his last breakfast. The warden knocks on his cell door and says 'It's time', to which Castle replies 'So soon?' They have both clearly been watching too many gangster movies. The gallows appear to have been set up in some sort of cathedral cloister.

Castle is perfectly calm. You see he wants to die. He believes in the fairies so strongly that he doesn't think that death matters. Which makes it all right that we see the hanging from his point of view (evidently, the idea of hoods and blindfolds had not yet been thought of). No sooner has he dropped through the trapdoor than we are whizzing off down one of those near-death-experience tunnels of light, at the end of which is a fairy. The fairy takes him back to the original Swiss walking holiday where his love so melodramatically snuffed it. Only this time he rescues her. Freeze frame on kiss. Role credits. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

To summarise the films main sins:

1: Disneyland England.
Not since Shadowlands have I seen a film so lovingly set in the Olden Days but so replete with modern attitudes. I do not believe that Edwardian village clergymen went jogging. I certainly do not believe that the paparazzi were a great problem in 1919. ('Are you going to take a picture and sell it to a London newspaper', asks Linda the children's nanny? She even suggests the headline 'Mother of two in tragic accident.')

Castle teeters on the brink of saying the brink of saying 'the truth is out there'. His lady love falls into a ravine, hangs on to his hand, but gradually slips away. The musical watch that was her only present to him is pulled out and opened at strategic moments. Every time anyone falls out of a tree, we slip into slow motion. The walk to the gallows is filmed at foot level. Every scene, practically every line, is an appallingly hoary cliché. I don't know whether Victorian cameras would have been capable of doing multiple-enlargements so that we could see fairies reflected in little girls retinas. I do know that its a recurrent X-Files plot device.

4: Monumental Lack of Subtlety
Castle makes his living doing trick photos, adding the faces of soldiers killed in the war to family groups. As he pastes a picture together, he murmurs 'I am the resurrection and the life.' Sure enough, the clergyman at the gallows repeats the same verse. When Linda is moving the children to a new house after the tragedy we see her packing away the children's books—all of which have the word 'fairy' prominently in the titles. The first thing we see in the trial seen is lots of cameras going off. Ham-fisted film-school symbolism, pointing nowhere, so irritatig and obvious that the audience cringe.

3: Incoherent cosmology
Take your pick, chaps. Are fairies:
a: The reincarnations of dead lovers, intermediaries between this world and the next.
b: Material organisms that move so fast we can't see them
c: Dreams that one has under the influence of some sort of drug
d: Magic creatures summonsed up by rituals.

4: Incoherent symbolism
Is the message that the beloved dead remain present in some way (only a heart beat away) if only we could learn to perceive them? Or is that the past should stay in the past and that we should learn to let go? Is Castle enlightened because he lets himself die to go back to his former love, or is the message that in Linda he had potentially a new love in the here and now? Are the conventional clergy to be condemned for believing too strongly in the next world rather or for not believing strongly enough? Is seeking after you dead love in the next world recommended, or deplored? In what sense are Castles beliefs, the vicars and Conan-Doyle's different?

5: Laughably stupid plotting
Would even someone playing the Repressed Englishman template chase two little girls into the woods the first time he sees them rather than go and visit their parents? Would an English judge in 1920 have allowed a man who has just pled guilty to a capital crime to make a speech in open court explaining his theories of the afterlife? (Was there a 'right to council' in 1920?) Would a middle aged clergymen, even a mad one, really have managed to cut down that big a tree in an afternoon? And aren't there better ways with dealing with impostors at the vicarage than to ask them to go jogging with you, suggesting that they walk across a log over a chasm, and then tripping them up and interrogating them while they dangle over the abyss?

There is a type of American film—call it a 'feelgood movie' or a 'therapy movie' or just 'a load of crap'—which tries so hard to appeal to everybody that it ends up saying nothing. Shine! can't be about Jewish families and the pressures of talent, it has to be about staying true to yourself. Michael Collins can't be about a particular moment in Irish history, it has to be about staying true to yourself. Shadowlands (I spit on its grave) can't be about a particular type of religious faith facing a particular type of crisis—it has to be about the need to believe in Something, in Yourself, that is to say, about staying true to yourself. Sleepers can't be about child abuse in American children's homes—it has to turn into a buddy-buddy redeeming power of close male friendship movie. This is usually blamed on the very high budgets of American movies, the process of script-writing by committee, and the tendency to re-write films on the basis of the reactions of preview audiences.

It is nice to know that the English can achieve the same results with nothing more than an Arts Council grant.

Tosh, tosh, tosh, tosh, tosh.