In 1917, two English girls produced photographs that showed fairies. The photographs were published in a national magazine by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and an ardent spiritualist, and he vouched for their authenticity. The "Cottingley fairies'' created an international sensation, though there were many doubters. Many years later, when they were old ladies, the girls confessed that the photos were a hoax.
That much is true. "Fairytale--A True Story'' fudges so much of it that it should not really claim to be true at all. Not that it really matters. The movie works as a fantasy, and as a story of little girls who fascinate two of the most famous men of the age--Conan Doyle and the magician Harry Houdini, an outspoken debunker of all forms of spiritualism.
Early in the film we see a performance of "Peter Pan'' that sets the stage, I think, for the movie's confusion between fantasy and reality. At one point in the play, the children in the audience are asked, "Do you believe in fairies?'' They all shout "yes,'' and then the coast is clear for fairies to appear. There is the implication that if they shouted "no,'' there would be no fairies, although no audience has been bold enough to test this.
In the movie, too, the fairies appear to those who believe in them. Are they real? Yes, Virginia. The film centers on 12-year-old Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath) and 8-year-old Frances Griffiths (Elizabeth Earl), who has come to live with her cousin; her father is "missing'' in the war in France, and she thinks she knows what that means. Elsie has also had a loss; her brother died not long ago. So both children are primed for belief in the other world, and one day they take a camera into the garden and return with film that, when developed, shows fairies.