“A feast for the imagination”
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly
Once upon a time, there was a Queen (Hayek) who could not bear a child. At the advice of a necromancer, the Queen’s husband (Reilly) slays a sea monster. The King is also killed, but the Queen eats the heart of the monster and is instantly pregnant. She and the virgin kitchen maid who cooks the heart give birth to identical boys even before the King’s funeral, attended by two other monarchs: a King (Cassel) whose appetites know no restraint, and another King (Jones) with a beloved daughter.
Years later, the Queen seeks to end the friendship between the two boys (Christian and Jonah Lees). The maid’s boy, Jonah, goes away, but stabs a tree such that a spring gushes forth, and tells his almost-brother if it ever runs dim, he will be in danger. When one day it does, Prince Elias hurries to find his friend and the Queen makes a deal with the necromancer to end the friendship once and for all. Elias finds Jonah threatened by a monster, which he kills, never realising that it is his transformed mother.
The lustful King becomes besotted with a girl he hears singing, not realising she is in fact an old woman, Dora (Haley Carmichael). Dora agrees to come to his bed, but only in the dark. He lights and candle and has her thrown from the castle, to be fuond by a witch who suckles Dora and causes her to become a young woman (Stacy Martin). When Dora’s sister pesters her with demands to know how she became young, Dora claims to have flayed herself and grown a new skin, causing Imma (Shirley Henderson) to seek the same remedy, with gruesome results.
The other King raises his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave), but then becomes distracted raising a pet flea,which grows to massive size before dying. When his daughter asks to be allowed out into the world, he agrees to let her marry the man who can identify the skin of the deceased flea, only to end up giving her in marriage to a hideous ogre. No gentleman beast, the ogre takes her to his cave and rapes her. She is rescued by a family of acrobats, but the Ogre comes after and kills them. Appearing to accept her husband, she climbs on his back and then slits his throat before returning home.
At the end of the film, the three families gather once more for Violet’s accession as Queen, and Dora flees when she begins to age again.
What’s wrong with it?
Tale of Tales is a mishmash portmanteau of harsh and bloody fairy tales, which mostly end more than they conclude.
What’s right with it?
Tale of Tales is a visual feast, from the lavish costumes to the stunning Italian locations. It is also tied together by the recurring motif of court acrobats and other entertainers, from those performing for the King and Queen in the opening scenes, to a figure walking on a burning tightrope over the coronation.
Particularly striking is the early scene where the Queen devours the heart that cost her husband’s life to gain.
The film puts its own twist on the tales it chooses to retell, in particular by allowing Violet ultimately to be her own salvation; an improvement on the original, in which she is simply rescued, returned and married to someone more suitable.
While eschewing any grandiose displays of special effects – its budget is less than 1/15th that of a single Hobbit movie – it has some decent practical monsters and no CGI to speak of.
How bad is it really?
Tale of Tales is a film out of time. With no CGI and aspects of storytelling and direction reminiscent of The Company of Wolves and the works of Terry Gilliam, it could honestly have been made any time in the last thirty years, and only the crisp film quality limits it that much. It is utterly gorgeous and oddly compelling.
Best bit (if such there is)?
After the murder of the acrobats, the film hangs out the threat that Violet’s fate will be to ‘tame’ the ogre with her beauty while adhering to her enforced marriage to a man-eating, rapist brute. With deceptive tenderness, he lifts her onto his back. She lays her head submissively against his shoulder, reaches her arm around his neck, and coolly cuts his throat.
What’s up with…?
- The rampant fan disservice of Vincent Cassell’s sleazy pursuit of elderly ladies?
- Shirley Henderson’s career? Great actress, but I last saw her playing a fifteen year old ghost spying on Harry Potter in the bath (which was creepy) and here she’s aged on thirty years with latex. Why will no one cast her the age she is?
Production values – Excellent use of location shooting can – and in this case, does – allow a movie to far exceed the limitations of its budget. A wide range of Italian palaces, castles and outdoor locations allow the production to spend a little more on sumptuous costuming. 2
Dialogue and performances – The international cast occasionally struggle a little from being shoehorned into an English language production, but the script is good, maintaining the beats and feel of fairy tales, and the players all pros. 5
Plot and execution – The three stories are cut together to maintain pacing, and the recurring motifs of acrobats, or of one of a group of spectators showing no interest in the entertainments delighting the others, used well to link the various stories. 5
Randomness – A flea? Flaying? Okay, so there’s a certain amount of randomness, but that’s from the source as much as anything. 6
Waste of potential – Top-notch fairy tailing, somewhat reminiscent of The Storyteller, but without the Muppets and with much more blood. 4