(Nick Willing, UK, 1997)
Bloody typical. You wait for years for a film about fairies and then two come along at once. During 1997, in the space of just a few months, we had a theatrical release for two fantasy films, both British productions, both about fairies, in fact, both about the same fairies and featuring many of the same characters. Nick Willing's Photographing Fairies was the first to see a release, closely followed by Fairytale: A True Story. Both are very good films, but the approach taken by each is markedly different, with this being the more 'adult' film (it received a 15 classification). To be fair to the script, Photographing Fairies uses the famous Cottingly fairies story merely as a springboard to examine more fundamentally human concerns.
Photographer Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) looses his newly-wed wife in a terrible mountain accident. Never coming to terms with her death he becomes introverted, cynical and rude, but makes a living as a professional photographer. Devastated at the loss of his wife, he refuses to believe in an afterlife, yet at the same time needs it to be true. After debunking the Cottingly photographs at a public meeting, Castle meets the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and well-known spiritualist. Attempting to persuade Conan Doyle that his ideas are pure fancy the young photographer inexorably get drawn deeper and deeper into the dream world of the fantastic - all the time trying to rationalise and explain what he experiences.
This is a well-cast film, with Ben Kingsley, Emily Woolf and the excellent Edward Hardwicke as Conan Doyle. It's also a very well-made film has some great vignettes, including a visually stunning sequence when Castle takes a hallucinogenic flower in a woodland ritual at night and witnesses the fairies in slow-time. The fantasy premise is a device used by the script to look at the human condition. It looks at how adults cope with life and death and how, as children, we can be shielded from the harsh realities of it all. This is in stark contrast to Fairytale: A True Story, which is all about the world that children create for themselves. The two films can be viewed as two sides of the same story but with dramatically different approaches. For the record, of the two I prefer Fairytale, but Photographing Fairies is a sumptuous fantasy film in its own right and both can be enjoyed on different levels. This is undoubtedly the more thought-provoking and 'adult' take on the subject and as a drama it is terrific, passionate and moving. The final moments have some of the most wonderfully melancholic images I've seen for a long time. Well worth seeing.
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