For many years, Disney cornered the market on bringing fairy tales to the big screen. In doing so they took some quite dark material and removed or softened the harsh edges to make a product that is fit for the whole family. What cannot be removed from these stories is the sense of darkness that underscores them. They are from a place of fear and it is sometimes forgotten that they are cautionary tales that apply to all.
Tale of tales is a film based on three Neapolitan fairytales by Giambattista Basile. They are loosely linked as they occur at the same time and in the same region. The first is a tale of a Queen (Salma Hayek) who will go to any lengths to produce an heir to the throne. Taking the advice of an old man she sends the king off to kill a sea monster and deliver it’s still beating heart to her so that she can have it cooked and served to her. The second tale, in a neighbouring kingdom focuses on a lecherous king (Vincent Cassel) who takes a liking to the singing voice of a servant he hears. He believes that it belongs to a young woman but in fact is an old wrinkled woman who posses the youthful vocals. As he pursues here, without seeing her, she thinks of a way to deceive him. The third tale sees a King (Toby Jones) who is in love with a flea and tends to it as it becomes the size of a sheep. He lavishes all his affection on it while ignoring his daughter (Bebe Cave) who is desperate to see the world and meet the man of her dreams.
The film is the English language debut of Matteo Garrone, best known for his 2008 film Gomorrah. He has created something quite magical here. The film looks amazing. In a way it is a fairy tale setting for each of the strands. They are in sumptuous castles with ravishing set designs and attention to detail. It is the perfect location for the stories as it peaks the interest before the tales have a chance to unfold. The opening sequence establishes the tone for the rest of the film. Without preamble, we are drawn into the court of the king and Queen (John C Reilly and Salma Hayek). The camera slowly moves towards the court passing all manner of entertainers. Fire breathers, jugglers and clowns abound. When we settle on the act currently entertaining the crown we are immediately drawn to the Queen. She is the only person not enjoying the entertainment. Immediately she is the focus of the audience.
The three segments explore the darkness surrounding the fairy tale setting and the stories. The slaying of a monster is expected to be a triumphant conclusion to a tale. We dont expect to see the aftermath of someone tucking into the still bloody heart of the beast. It is gory and quite menacing. With the old woman, we see her in all her aged glory. Nothing is left to the imagination and the realism on screen is quite disturbing.
The stories are told in parts with the focus shifting after a short period of action in one setting. They are all compelling stories, each having highs and lows. The structure of the film ensures that the audience is never on a low part for too long. The actors are uniformly great here. Given the source material, the performances are mannered and sometimes a bit eccentric which only lends to the atmosphere of the pieces. Toby Jones is a standout as the king with the giant fleas obsession. He brings real depth to a character that could have easily been portrayed as a buffoon.
Overall, a rich and entertaining film with great performances and a singular vision.