Tale of Tales


Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam are both going to love this movie. These two men have poured their fascination with fairy tales into their work often highlighting the dark undertones of the familiar stories. Now with Tale of Tales, Italian director Matteo Garrone has gone right back to the grizzly source of things like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to create a macabre but visually stunning film. I’m sure the boys will be impressed.

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Over the years films like The Princess Bride, Stardust, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Gilliam’s Time Bandits and del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth have given us new stories in this style in various shades on black. Other pictures, like The Company of Wolves, have retold classics of the genre ramping up the threat and violence. Here though Garrone has adapted several chapters from Giambattista Basile’s early collection of folk tales showing us that the monsters and murder have been there right from the start.

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Basile’s book Pentamerone was written in the 1600s and is the earliest record we have of many of the fairy tales we know today. Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, who are widely credited with giving us these stories, actually got their ideas from this tome and the origins of Cinders, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Puss in Boots are all in there. 

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Tale of Tales does not retell the familiar adventures, concentrating instead on three lesser known narratives. Here we get the story of three foolish monarchs. Salma Hayek’s queen who eats the heart of a sea monster in order to have a baby, Toby Jones as a king who neglects his daughter over a flea and Vincent Cassel’s randy ruler unable to see beyond lust and beauty. These are not stories that are ever going to be under consideration by Disney, even with the typical neutering. They feature decapitations, mutation, flaying, sex and nudity all of which are unflinchingly depicted on screen. This may be a fairy tale but it is a 15 rated fairy tale. 

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Some of the grotesqueness comes from The Pentamerone, some is added but it all feels authentic to the dark spirit that lies at the heart all of these pantomime stories. Let’s not forget that, even in the kiddy versions, Red Riding Hood’s Gran is eaten by a wild animal and Snow White’s step mother is a cannibal. 

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Even without knowing the exact stories adapted here much of the action feels familiar from all the other fairy tales we know. There is always a surprising twist or a dark turn of events coming though and watching it you do wonder at the imaginations of those original storytellers and the new film makers alike. One of the plot threads sees an ogre fall in love with a princess and it is like a live action, and very twisted, version of Shrek. Elsewhere an old woman is granted the gift of youth but it doesn’t come from brushing the magical hair of a stolen princess as much as it does from drinking… no, actually I’ll let you discover that for yourself.

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Before watching it I had thought that Tale of Tales would be, at best, an ambitious fantasy film with a narrative that didn’t quite match the visuals or, at worst, a noble failure. We’ve been here before with Gilliam and The Brothers Grimm, Baron Munchausen and Doctor Parnassus and with Tarsem Singh who directed The Fall and Mirror Mirror. Too often people’s movies have failed to match their vision when making this sort of film. Matteo Garrone has crafted a brilliant film though and it is as captivating and inspired as it is disturbing. Even the unsettling moments add to the majesty. 

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There are times when logic and reason take a back seat and on occasion the plot is overly simplified but that again is part of the style. So a man walks to the bottom of the ocean with nothing but the air in his helmet to keep him alive and a boy with no magical propensity whatsoever pokes a hole in a tree and creates a bubbling spring, it is a fairy tale and that’s how they role. Besides, none of that is any odder than every single thing that happens in the X-Men films. You tune in pretty quickly to how things work in this world, realism be damned, and by the time a woman is walking into a castle at the end, covering in blood having overcome an attacker, you are punching the air like it’s the closing moments of Apollo 13.

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The film is beautifully shot, making use of some incredible real locations such as Castle of Roccascalegna and Castel del Monte, both in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. The costumes are similarly spectacular, the make up impressive (if occasionally discomforting) and the limited use of CGI complements the in camera elements effectively. 

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The performances are also strong with Toby Jones and an unrecognisable Shirley Henderson probably excelling the most but mention should also go to 18 year old Bebe Cave who switches from put upon victim to powerful victor with great conviction. 

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The real talent though is Matteo Garrone, who had already impressed with Gomorrah. He is a director to watch out for in the future and Tale of Tales, in cinemas and on demand, is a film to watch now.

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The Ripley Factor:
Fairy Tales are not known for their positive representations of women and, with this being a relatively faithful production of a book from four hundred years ago, there are some archetypes. There is also some female nudity that isn’t totally necessary. As suggested, there are some heroic women as well though.

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Is this one for the kids?
The subtitle of the book Pentamerone is ‘Entertainment for Little Ones’ but this isn’t, not at all.

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