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DO YOU BELIEVE? 'FAIRY TALE,' STRANGER THAN FICTION

WHAT HAPPENS when children's belief collides with adults' skepticism -- and then some of the adults start making the case for belief?

That's the question posed by "Fairy Tale," a British movie made intriguing mainly by its subtitle, "A True Story." This scenario of fairies in the garden and a need to believe in magic has its origins in England during the Great War. It's drawn from a case study by Arthur Conan Doyle, who besides creating the greatest detective in the history of fiction, Sherlock Holmes, was fascinated with real-life trickery and the paranormal.

It seems there were two cousins, 10-year-old Frances (Elizabeth Earl) and 8-year-old Elsie (Florence Hoath), who ventured into their wilderness garden one day and discovered fairies flitting about -- dragonfly-looking creatures the size of your thumb. They told the grown-ups; no one believed them, of course. So they got hold of a newfangled Midg camera and took some pictures. They seemed to show fairies! An uproar followed, one that included attention from the avant-garde Theosophical Society and then from Doyle himself and the lone American in the film, the great magician Harry Houdini.

Could it be magic?

It was 1917, the childhood of the century, long before quantum physics and molecular biology turned us into creatures of smug self-satisfaction, dead sure that all the great mysteries have been explained. And it was wartime, a time of loss and dislocation and fear, when people might have been open to the possibility of realities beyond our circumscribed lives. There's a subplot in the movie about Frances' dead brother, who knew the fairies, and their mother (Phoebe Nicholls), who's stuck in her grief until she's jolted into the realization that there is hope for another life.

"Fairy Tale" has echoes of "The Little Prince," the classic book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. "Grown-ups don't know how to believe," young Frances says at one point, in the same tone in which the Little Prince said: "Grown-ups believe nothing if they don't see it. But what is essential is invisible to the eye."

What saves the movie from becoming saccharine are two character actors: Peter O'Toole as Arthur Conan Doyle, and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. Keitel, especially, seems to relish his role as the master of illusion. He comes across at first as a dour, ultrarationalist killjoy -- the Paul Kurtz of his time. But Houdini wasn't beyond believing, and his interplay with Doyle, the man of science and logic, is fun to watch.

"Fairy Tale" is marketed as a children's movie -- what was the last PG-rated film you went to without a kid in tow? But it may miss the mark a little in that regard. Kids won't pick up on a lot of the perilous emotional states and intellectual politicking of the adults in the movie. And as for the fairies themselves, well, kids these days have ingested so much in the way of special effects that little creatures with big wings won't particularly amaze them. It's too bad, because this is a quiet kind of magic that the hyperstimulation of American movies has made seem too small to appreciate.

"Fairy Tale" may leave you with a desire to read Arthur Conan Doyle's original account of the incident. It definitely will leave you with what-if kinds of questions. In an age when we think everything's figured out, that's a good thing.

A True Story

Rating:*** During World War I, two British girls claim to have photo graphed fairies in their garden, attracting attention from, among others, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Based on a true story. Starring Florence Hoath, Eliza beth Earl, Peter O'Toole and Harvey Keitel. Directed by Charles Sturridge. Rated PG, opens today at area movie theaters.

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