Review--Fairy Tale: A True Story


Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angels wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine... --Keats

This year we have Fairy Tale: A True Story. Last year we had Photographing Fairies, and next year, we will have Abott and Costello Meet Queen Mab. But this year, this year we have Fairy Tale: A True Story.

Some time in 1917, two little girls named Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright surprised Elsie's father by telling him not only that he had fairies at the bottom of his garden, but also that they had taken photographs of them. The pictures—attractive works of art—were seized on by Conan Doyle and others gullible souls as proof of their spiritualist and theosophist theories. Of course, they were forgeries, achieved by sticking cut-out drawings to trees with long hat-pins.

This amusing prank forms the subject matter for both Photographing Fairies and Fairy Tale. Although Photographing Fairies was incoherent, badly written and badly acted, it did go out of its way to distance itself from the Cottingley hoax, locating it's mystical bollocks at a fictitious location. Fairy Tale is a very much better film. Its imagery and metaphors are fairly subtle and affecting; the scenes follow on from one another in a coherent fashion; the characters behave in a way which human beings could conceivable be imagined to behave. However, unlike Photographing Fairies, it asks us to believe that it is, in some sense or other, 'true'.

There is an apocryphal story about a critic who reviewed William Morris's poem Love is Enough in three words: 'It is not.' I was tempted to give Fairy Tale: A True Story the same treatment.

The basic thrust of the narrative is, indeed, 'true'. The girls produce the photographs: Elsie's father is sceptical but her mother believes in them. Their mother hears a talk by a theosophist named Edward Gardner, and gives him the pictures. He passes them on to Conan Doyle, who gets them verified by a photographic expert called Snelling, and by Kodak's studios. Both confirm that the plates had not been tampered with (because, of course, they hadn't been.) Doyle visits the girls, gives them new cameras, asks them to produce more pictures, which they do. Doyle takes the view that what proves the pictures authenticity is not the testimony of photographic experts, but the character of Frances and Elsie: Elsie's mother believes them; she knows the character of the girls—could she really be mistaken? The pictures appear in the Strand magazine, and thence in a book by Doyle. The girls' identity is initially disguised, but a local journalist tracks them down and publishes their real names. They become minor celebrities; the waterfall where the photos were taken, briefly a tourist attraction. I don't know whether Harry Houdini was really involved in the case, but given his friendship with Doyle and interest in illusions and debunking spiritualists, his presence in the movie seems fairly plausible. The film goes out of its way to place the story in the post-Victorian context: before we have really got started, we have had a theosophist giving out tracts entitled 'Do Angels Exist', and a theatre full of children yelling 'I believe in fairies' at Peter Pan. We see Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle discuss the validity of spiritualism, and an old veteran swearing blind he saw the Angels at Mons.

Like the earlier movie, Fairy Tale asks us to believe that the photos were real and that the fairies really existed. But it takes other liberties with the facts:

1: Elsie and Frances are specifically said to be 12 and 8 years old. In fact, at the time the pictures were taken, Elsie was 16. By the time Doyle became aware of them, she was 19. By the time of the publication of Doyle's book, 'Discovery of the Fairies', she was 20 and Frances was 16. So much for innocent little girls.

2: Frances was not Elsie's classmate. At the time the photos were taken Elsie had a job. The job was working in, er, a camera shop, retouching photographs. So much for never having used a camera before.

3: Far from being only visible to children, Gardner, the theosophist, provided Doyle with a clairvoyant who, when taken to the waterfall, claimed to have seen the fairies just as the children described. So much for a world which grown-ups have forgotten how to see.

A film about what really happened—about how a clever man like Doyle could have been so tremendously stupid as to be taken in by an adolescent prank would have been 'true'. A film about what Doyle said really happened would have been legitimate, and have some claim to being a 'true'. It would be no different in this respect from a thousand and one UFO movies and ghost stories. But what we are dealing with is not what really happened, nor what Doyle said really happened, but what the film maker would like to have happened: a millennial myth about a World War I myth about a silly prank. 'True' is a very odd word to describe such a construct.

Even at its own level, the film is incoherent. Conan Doyle is represented as a gullible, over excitable character: we are told about his insane father, his recent bereavement, and his naive trust of spiritualists. 'Do you think I'm such an old fool that someone could trick me into believing I am talking to my own son?' asks Doyle. 'You wouldn't be the first', says Houdini, sadly. Gardner is an unmitigated twit; talking wildly about spirit photography and angels; unable to get near the river without sticking his foot in the water, believing anything the girls tell him. The sceptical Houdini, on the other hand is wise and likeable. There is a very nice scene at in which he does some conjuring tricks for Elsie. She asks if he ever tells anyone how they are done and he replied. 'Never, and I never will, not even when I am dead. Because they don't really want to know.' Houdini, it seems, admires the girls as fellow illusionists, and regards the trick as harmless because (unlike spiritualism) it does not play on people's grief. A bit later, an over-acted hospital patient asks one of the girls if they will ask their fairies to make him better. Frances says that the fairies cannot help cure him, but his guardian angel will—something she obviously made up on the spot. Another nice scene; illustrating the point that fairies might be a sort of lie which it is necessary to believe in, asking 'Is belief in fairies necessarily better or worse than any other sort of religious faith?' But both scenes are rendered entirely meaningless since, it has already been established, the fairies are not an illusion or a life-life but literally real entities. It is tempting to suppose that the special effects fairies were inserted, after the event, into an ambiguous, sceptical, and much more interesting script.

Unlike the computer generated barbie acid-dreams of Photographing Fairies the Fairy Tale creatures are yer genuine gossamer winged Midsummer Nights Dream article. Interestingly enough, they wear a sort of medieval costume, tunics and long dresses. Mysteriously, when Elsie takes the snap shot, they are transformed into the 1920s fashion show rejects who appear in the actual Cottingley photographs. At one point, there is a pleasant bit of aerial photography showing a fairy flying over the woods, looking down. When the nasty tourists invade the Cottingley waterfall, there is an affecting scene of the fairy tribe decamping to a new location, like a bunch of medieval pilgrims, complete with horses. (They have, we assume, forgotten about their wings.) The fairies exist when Elsie and Frances aren't looking at them. So why, exactly, does faith and belief come into the picture?

Most confusingly of all while Elsie and Frances are in London, a bumbling journalist has broken into their house to try to get a story. (It must be pretty galling for Tim McInnery to only be allowed to play clones of Lord Percy.) He opens a drawer in Elsie's father's study, and finds a file of papers belonging to Elsie's dead brother. They are drawings of fairies, including some cut-outs— of fairies looking just like the ones in the pictures. He grins evilly, knowing that he has them rumbled. And then, suddenly, the film changes its mind, and the dead boys ghost appears and scares him off. You what?

Director Charles Sturridge wants the Cottingley story to be about the difference between the child's (innocent, unfallen, vomit) world and that of adults; and about the ways in which people try to hold on to their childhood, and to the past in general. (The same sort of existential confusion was present in his earlier film of Gulliver's Travels.) Frances is sad because her father is 'missing' in the war; Elsie is sad because her brother has died of pneumonia. ('Why didn't you die?' asks Frances, tactfully.) Elsie's father is depressed because he has no photographs of his dead son, and can't think of his face; her mother says she doesn't need pictures she only has to close her eyes to see him. But it is the mother who believes in the fairy pictures, and her father who thinks they are frauds. The two little girls lie in bed, wondering what it must be like to be grown up. ('It must be like not being you' suggests Frances.) They are sure that, even when they are grown up, they will never forget the fairies, because they have the photographs to remind them. But the act of photographing the fairies has had the effect of scaring them off. The dead boy believed in fairies but was discouraged from talking about them by his father—they were part of childhood, and he was nearly old enough to work at t'mill. It is good to be reminded that this appallingly sentimental view of childhood was being promulgated by old men in an environment where 12 year olds were sent out to do industrial work. All three take the fairies as somehow proof that the dead boy is still alive somewhere. Maybe we are supposed to read his appearance to the journalist symbolically: by destroying the 'proof' of the fake pictures, he enables the family to cling to their hope of an afterlife? This would be consistent with the vague attempt to connect fairies and angels.

The final scene is completely over the top. The fairies are swarming around the girls bedroom, forgiving them for breaking the secret and spoiling their home. Elsie wakes up Frances to introduce her to the Queen of the Fairies. But Frances is more interested in a car pulling up outside the house. Out of the car steps her father, not dead after all... Even Elsie's sceptical dad sees a fairy as it whizzes past the edge of his nose. The scene resembled nothing so much as the end of Miracle on 34th Street (a film with more interesting things to say about childhood and faith, by the way.) Oh! How passing cool 'twould have been if one of those historical text captions could have popped up saying 'In 1983, Elise admitted that she had forged the pictures.' But no such luck.

The original fairy photographs are a powerful symbol of a post-Victorian outlook. Science (it was said) will rob the world of its wonder, its mystery, its beauty. It will certainly build ugly mills in pretty beauty-spots. And then along came someone saying 'Look—I can use an up to the minute new fangled scientific device like a camera—and I can capture on it the most ephemeral, wonderful, mysterious, beautiful, creature imaginable. So there you are. Science won't debunk the world: it will simply make it more wonderful than it was before.'

Modern mystics, on the other hand, want to have their fairy cake and eat it too. Fairies (and angels, and gray aliens, and love, and God, and morality, and socialism, and all the other delusions) must both exist and not exist. We must both believe in them and not believe in them. They must be placed in some special sort of conceptual space about which you can say 'They are real in some sense' or 'If you believe in them, they are real for you' or 'Grown ups don't know how to believe' or 'I don't want to be defender of the faith, I want to be defender of faith in general'. The film is not exhorting us to believe in fairies. It is not even asking us to believe that there might be weird, paranormal stuff in the world that science can't deal with. Is it telling us to retain a child's perception for our whole lives—which is impossible? Or to retain vivid memories of our childhood—which most people do? Or does the huggy-huggy ending imply 'The real magic in the world comes from people you love?' to which we can only respond 'We need no fairy, sir, sent from Arcadia to tell us this.' In fact, its whole message is summed up in the single word which adorns the cinema poster: 'Believe!'

A bad, grown up person such as myself might suppose that 'belief' was something applied to a concept—one believes in the soul, or in alien life-forms, or in the Loch Ness Monster. Good, in-touch-with-their-childhood people know better. You don't have to believe in anything; belief and faith are good things in themselves.

Good, child-like people like Charles Sturridge know that there exists in the world a thing called spirituality. It may exist in Lilliput or outer space, but it most likely exists in the past—1920, or When We Were Very Young. It does not have any content, meaning or implications: like the spirituality which George Carey told us that there was an outpouring of at Diana's funeral: a vague, warm, nostalgic, feeling which (unlike religious belief) leaves you free to carry on exactly as before.

Fairy Tale brilliantly sums up the mess we are in at the end of the 20th century just as well as the Cottingley myth summed up the mess we were in at the beginning of it. Tinkerbell says that she thinks she might get well if children believed in absolutely everything. Do you believe in everything? Say it! If you believe in everything, clap your hands....