Streaming spotlight: away with the faeries

We explore an enchanted cinematic world in celebration of Midsummer

by Jennie Kermode

There’s magic in the air at Midsummer, traditionally a time when the faerie world is thought to be close to our own and crossing between the two all too easy. There’s danger in this as well as wonder, even if you stay well away from Midsommar-style rituals, and our Spotlight this week aims to show you a little of both, with films for viewers of different ages. Sit back and let yourself be enchanted by the silver screen – just remember that faerie glamour is never quite what it seems.

Pan's Labyrinth
Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth - Amazon Prime, Apple TV

When Franco’s fascists dominated Spain in 1944, many others went into hiding. Perhaps they weren’t all human. Guillermo del Toro’s haunting fable balances perfectly in that ambiguous space between fantasy and metaphor, tragedy and triumph as it tells the story of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl whose mother has married a cruel commander. Relocated to a wooded area where his troops are trying to break down guerrilla resistance, she takes refuge in a world which may or may not be real and makes a pact with a faun, agreeing to complete a series of tasks. The rules by which these are governed abide closely by European folkloric tradition, but it’s no small thing for a hungry girl to resist eating on the other side, and Ofelia soon finds that there are dangers whichever way she turns. The performances here are superb and the visual wonder of the film stems not just from its spectacularly detailed otherworld but from the way Del Toro finds magic in the forest which anyone might glimpse if they really cared to look.

A Caribbean Dream
A Caribbean Dream

A Caribbean Dream - Chili

We couldn’t celebrate Midsummer without including at least one cinematic take on Shakespeare’s classic, and though there are many to choose from, this version, relocated to Barbados, is among the best. Set against the backdrop of a festival, with bonfires, dancing and a full moon riding high in the sky, it does what the best stage versions have done and captures that sense that this is a time when the usual rules don’t apply. We don’t lose sight of the modern world but this only strengthens the sense that the faerie realm can brush up against ours without regard for time. Patrick Michael Foster excels as Puck, not an impish little thing here but a sprite who is old enough to know better and who approaches proceedings with a glee that is rightly disconcerting, while Oberon and Titania are engaged in a starkly contemporary marital dispute. There is still romance, of course, and director Shakirah Bourne draws on what is ancient and unknowable for a take which ultimately celebrates youth and change.

Peter Pan
Peter Pan Photo: Disney

Peter Pan, Disney, Amazon, Chili

Amber Wilkinson writes: There are certain elements of the Disney adaptation of JM Barrie's book about the boy who never grew up that have dated quite badly - in particular the "Red Indians", which are based on Barrie's creations - but it catapulted fairy Tinker Bell to lasting fame, with her pixie dust gracing the Disney logo for years. She may be silent but she is one of the main hooks - apart from Hook himself, of course - of this animation, a feisty and engaging presence as Wendy and her brothers find themselves crossing swords with the pirates in Neverland. Her model, Margaret Kerry, told us "She wasn't a big character at first - but I'm told that they eventually spent more money on her than anyone else." There are plenty more interpretations out there, including Steven Spielberg's Hook and Benn Zeitlin's Wendy. Plus, if you're looking for something a bit different - including an unusual origin story for Tinker Bell - try Brenda Chapman's Come Away.

Thale
Thale

Thale - Amazon Prime

If you’ve ever gone looking for faeries, the chances are that you’ve sought them out in wild places, or at least at the bottom of the garden. Nobody expects to encounter such creatures when at work, and especially not when engaged in such unpleasant tasks as Elvis (Erlend Nervold) and Leo (Jon Sigve Skard) routinely carry out for their cleaning company, No Shit. Their worldview is turned upside down one day when they’re cleaning up a cabin after the death of its owner and they find a beautiful young woman (Silje Reinåmo) imprisoned in what seems to be a freezer full of milk. This would be shocking enough in itself, but she’s not quite what she appears to be, and from the moment they release her, still stranger things become aware of her scent and start heading for the house. Reinåmo performance makes the film. Her thale is utterly wild: nervous, unpredictable, dangerous when cornered. She rightly dominates the film, much more than just a victim, and director Aleksander Nordaas uses this to explore the tension between two world.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Netflix

In the second instalment of the Hellboy franchise, in which Ron Perlman’s doom-mongering, kitten-loving demonic hero is having relationship problems and running out of patience with his job as a secret service operative, contemporary adventure collides with the faerie world when an elfin prince (Luke Goss) kills his father and tries to lead his people to war against humankind by awaking the titular army. Though there’s little real sense of existential threat from a fairy small army which moves at walking speed, even if it might be unstoppable, there’s plenty of danger and excitement for our heroes as they try to stop the conflict, with Hellboy facing his own mortality, Liz (Selma Blair) taking on board the fact that her boyfriend is destined to destroy the world, and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) falling in love with the prince’s sister. It’s the visual imagination of the film that really sells it, however, with a feast of new creatures, some decidedly sinister tooth fairies and a stunning sequence with an elemental which hits all the harder because of the devastating extinctions currently being witnessed in our own world.

The Spiderwick Chronicles
The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles - Netflix, Amazon, Chili

As we noted in another recent Spotlight, moving house is always tough, and never more so than when you’re leaving a loved one behind. Young Jared (Freddie Highmore) doesn’t understand why his father isn’t coming with them, and nobody knows how to tell him, but in the crumbling woodland mansion where his family settles, with its secret attic room full of arcane tomes, he discovers a whole new set of troubles. The house is stalked by a fearsome ogre with an army of hobgoblins, intent on obtaining a book which, if he claimed it, could give him terrifying power. It’s now up to Jared, his shy younger brother and his sword-wielding older sister to defend it – if they can. The darker aspects of this story are balanced by comedy and a real sense of wonder created by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.

FairyTale: A True Story
FairyTale: A True Story

FairyTale: A True Story - Chili, Amazon Prime

It might be said that if we didn’t have faeries we would have to invent them. In some places – as films like The Islands And The Whales remind us – they are still taken very seriously, but for two girls in the English village of Cottingley in 1917, the only way to bring a sense of magic back into world was to convince adults to believe in them. This they did by taking an innovative approach to photography (one which would, in due course, influence what could be seen in films). Charles Sturridge’s 1998 film dramatises these events, finding gentle comedy in the tension between gruff Yorkshire common sense and the fantastic world which its young heroines attempt to impress upon the adults around them. There are great performances from Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl as the girls and a delightful supporting turn from Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini, who took a keen interest in the puzzle. Like many an English period piece, it suffers from being slightly twee, but there’s plenty here to make for enjoyable family viewing.

The Cabbage-Patch Fairy

Our short this week is widely considered to be the first fantasy film ever made, created by Alice Guy in 1900. It had a huge effect on filmmakers who followed her and without it, the explosion of imaginative work which we see in cinemas might have taken a lot longer to happen.

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