As a long-time reader of The Fortean Times, and having a general interest in the more esoteric bits of social history, I was keen to find out what this dramatization of the Cottingley Fairies story would be like. I could remember it making some noise when it first came out, but that was mostly because it was a British costume drama that had some bits of CGI in it rather than because it was a great film. So I was also curious if was going to be bogged down with The Great British Worthiness that meant we had tried to pretend we never had a genre cinema industry after the 70s.
To start things off, the film took the bold decision to use the actual incident as a framework, rather than a script. It’s nothing major, moving the story from post-war 1919 to mid-war 1917 and making Frances (Elizabeth Earl) and Elsie (Florence Hoath) a couple of years closer in age are its biggest transgressions. This is very clearly done to help focus on the themes which the director Charles Sturridge wants to get across, of which there will be more on later because the historical accuracy of the film is pretty impressive. This is very cool, but often means that more attention is put into making things look right than having a talented pool of background actors.
What the film loses on extras looking into the camera or wandering around aimlessly, it makes up for with a core cast of epic proportion. Peter O’Toole is charming (how could be not be?) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who instantly believes the girls pictures of fairies are the real thing, Paul McGann is relatable and loving as the father who knows they’re fakes, Bill Nighy is Bill Nighy, paranormal believer, Tim McInnemy is impressively sleaze as an amoral news reporter, and Harvey Keitel dominates every scene he’s in as Harry Houdini. Keitel’ performance is especially worth a mention, as he looks nothing like the renowned escapologist and fraud exposer but manages to embody him perfectly.
The story itself is pretty simple; two kids, one displaced by the war, once coming to terms with the death of a brother, get their hands on a camera and take photos of fairies at the bottom of their garden. People see the photos and go “oh, that’s real” or “oh, that’s fake”. Some of the people saying real should know better, some of those saying fake are right sods. We get to see the fairies, but it’s never made clear if they’re real or not. To an extent, that’s not important, as this is really all about the themes. Of which there are a lot.
The trauma of WW1 and the acceptance of spiritualism to cope with that is one of them. The innocence of youth and the need to believe is another. Then we’ve got the needs of childish imagination vs the needs of adult reality, and how those two blur. Throw on playful illusion vs cynical fakery and how to deal with the death of a child, and that’s where most films would call it a day. But that would leave out a bit of class warfare, the treatment of the wounded after the war, the duty of the press against rights of privacy, the failings of the scientific method, big prize money chess, the plight of child laborers, environmentalism, the ills of tourism, owners vs workers, science vs faith, and whatever else can be crammed into any given scene and you’re getting an idea of how layered (or possibly overcrowded) things get. Nothing is badly handled, it’s just that you know every scene is Trying To Say Something.
The overall effect is, somehow, quite endearing as it adds gravitas to a mystery that was already conclusively solved 15 years before the film came out. By making everything meaningful, everything becomes important, and by everything being shot and performed in a very simple way, it’s all easy to keep up with. It’s like a constant light breeze on a sunny day for 99 minutes. Nothing too intense, noting too mild, and nothing that unexpected.
Curiously, the only bits where it becomes confusing is when the supernatural elements turn up. They look pretty good (fantastic given their age), and they work in and of themselves, but the film could work perfectly well without them. They are charming, no question about it, but the inconsistency as to if they’re imaginary, metaphorical, or the real thing is a distraction that’s not needed. There is one scene where it works incredibly well, and that is the only one that absolutely needed to be kept in. It’s like the director had a great idea for a narrative, and then threw in these bits to sell the film. So they can also be read as a lack of confidence from the producers.
But that’s a small issue, and this firmly lands as a Treasure. It’s not the most mind-shaking or heartbreaking of films, but it’s unrelentingly engaging and pleasant. It’s a costume drama that uses one incident to wave its hands towards some bigger questions, and it has a cast that’s able to breathe life into some pretty by-the-numbers characters. It won’t change your life, but it’s will brighten your afternoon.