Impressively mounted on the technical side and shot with considerable precision, “Photographing Fairies” doesn’t linger long on the cortex after the lights go up. Director Nick Willing’s confident first feature, about a post-WWI photog determined to prove the truth of some young girls’ stories about fairies, is marred by an uninvolving, foggy script that aims to tackle other issues, including postwar loss of faith and hope, and by some eccentric characterizations, notably by Ben Kingsley. Willing is clearly a talent to watch , but it is hard to see much of a theatrical audience for the picture in mature territories.
Script is based on a novel by Steve Szilagyi, which in turn was based on the true incident known as the Cottingley Fairies, in which two Yorkshire girls claimed they had played with and photographed fairies in their garden (The same event is treated in Charles Sturridge’s “Fairytale: A True Story,” which debuts in Toronto.) Expert analysis of the negs failed to puncture their claims, and even Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle became convinced by the story — much to his embarrassment when the two women later admitted it was a hoax.
Film centers on handsome Charles Castle (Toby Stephens, son of Maggie Smith and the late Robert Stephens), who marries and loses in 24 hours Anne-Marie (Rachel Shelley), the woman of his dreams, when a snow fissure swallows her in Switzerland in 1912. During World War I, Castle is an aloof, emotionally numbed photographer of corpses on the front line; after the war, he becomes a portrait photographer in partnership with his battlefield buddy Roy (Philip Davis).
Castle unmasks a photographic forgery at the trendy Theosophical Society, a haven of nutty spiritualists and would-be believers. There, he’s approached by the mysterious Bea Templeton (Frances Barber), who asks him to test some photos taken by her daughters. Intrigued, he visits their rural home and, after Bea’s mysterious death, becomes progressively more obsessed with communing with the fairies, who offer him a chance to reach the Other Side and reunite with his lost love.
On the face of it, all the elements are here for an engrossing spiritual romance, flecked with observations on a shellshocked postwar society that grasped at any straws to repair itself emotionally. But in Willing and Chris Harrald’s script (which reportedly went through 23 drafts) these themes emerge only fitfully, and are not anchored to an engrossing enough yarn.
Stephens is excellent in the early stages as a cold and arrogant technocrat, with a perpetual sneer in his voice, but doesn’t unbend as the story develops; later hocus-pocus about eating a magic flower to “see” the fairies is woolly, to say the least.
Barber is suitably mysterious in a briefish role as the mother. Emily Woof adds some welcome softness to the pic’s hard edges as the kids’ governess, who falls for Castle, but like Davis, who contributes badly needed flashes of humor, she has an underwritten role. As Conan Doyle, veteran Edward Hardwicke is thoroughly pro; as the children’s semi-crazed father, Kingsley looks like he’s stumbled in from another movie.
John de Borman’s pin-sharp photography is consistently fine, and Simon Boswell’s big, romantic score does its best to inject some emotion into the proceedings. Digital effects are also top-drawer, and Ron Mueck’s sexy, R-rated fairies freshly conceptualized. Reported $ 6 million budget is all up on the screen.