Since I first saw the trailer I have been heavily anticipating Tale of Tales. I am a sucker for dark fantasy films and this one looked right up my alley, finding out that the stories in here inspired other fantasy tales, from the more classical tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, to traces being seen in works by more modern authors like George RR Martin, along with it staring my favourite actor, Toby Jones, only sweetened the deal. After seeing it, I have to say that I don’t think I’ll see any other film that looks this good for the rest of the year.The film is split up into 3 different stories which occasionally intertwine with each other. The first story focuses on the Queen of Longtrellis, who longs for a child and agrees to a solution proposed by a necromancer to eat the heart of a sea dragon (which kills her husband in the process of obtaining it) cooked by a virgin. As part of the spell, not only does the Queen get pregnant but the virgin does to, the children being identical, causing difficulties as they grow older and become friends. The second story focuses on the King of Highhills, who raises a flea to gigantic size and, when it dies, the King decides to give his daughter Violet away as a bride to whoever can identify the creature, the person in question turning out to be an ogre and the problems resulting from that for Violet. The final story concerns the lecherous King of Strongcliff who is adamant in seducing a woman with a beautiful voice, that person being the old woman Dora, who, along with her sister Imma, has to hide her true appearance to maintain the love of the King. All of these stories are very intriguing, all of them having interesting themes behind them such as the nature of death, issues of trust, the nature of arranged marriages, the consequences of violent desire and the way you need to preserve love and friendship to preserve what is good about the world. It’s abundantly clear watching the film how inspirational the stories have been on works of fantasy throughout the centuries, you can see the roots of many tales in these fairy tales and that legacy makes the stories all the more compelling to watch. The issue I have with the plot is pretty much the same issue with every portmanteau film and it’s that some stories are more interesting than the others. The first story is easily the best in the film, it has the best plot, most thematic depth and best use of the fantasy elements, the other two stories though take a while to get going, once all the plot elements had been introduced I was enthralled but when we first switched to those stories I was waiting to get back to the first one but the stories did all reach the same level of quality by the end.
The performances are excellent across the board. The highlight is Selma Hayak as the Queen of Longtrellis who does a great job showing her determination for a child and how it has consumed her, along with the love she has for her son and the lengths she’ll go to to keep him safe. Speaking of which Christian Lees as Elias and Jonah Lees as the virgin’s son Jonah are great at showing the bond between them and how they they will do anything to each other. Toby Jones meanwhile is entertaining as the King of Highhills, doing a great job at showing how someone can come to value a flea so much (which would be silly in the hands of other actors) along with how his love for his daughter conflicts with the duty of his role as King when it comes to the ogre. Speaking of which, Bebe Cave does a good job as Violet, showing a great contrast between her romanticised view of the world and the harsh reality she faces when forced to marry the Ogre (which, if it was the same in the original story, was an inspiration for the arc of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones). Vincent Cassell meanwhile does a good job showing the lecherous nature of the King of Strongcliff, along with showing his passion, but the performance goes a bit too over the top for me. As Dora, Hayley Carmichael does a great job at showing the fear the character has over her true nature being discovered by the King, whilst Stacy Martin as the younger Dora is great at showing how her new found luck has made her vain, although still loving towards her sister. Shirley Henderson as Imma meanwhile has probably the most sympathetic performance in the film, but to say why would be to spoil the film. There’s also a good little cameo from John C Reilly as the King of Longtrellis, with him doing a great job at showing the love he has for his wife.
The technical aspects of the film are where it shines the most. The direction, cinematography, art direction, music, production design and costume design are all excellent, brilliantly evoking the baroque feel of the time the stories were first told, along with creating an otherworldly, timeless aspect to all the fantasy we see. These aspects don’t shy away from the dark nature of the stories, if anything they serve to highlight the darkness to an even greater level, and it works in creating a sense of danger and menace that is typical of the stories that doesn’t normally show up in fantasy films. This further adds to dark humour present in the stories which further adds to the dark fantasy world. The best side of this part of the film though comes with the make-up and practical creatures. This does a good job of aging characters (such as the make-up used for Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) and in creating terrifying creatures (mainly the subtle make-up used on Guillaume Delaunay). The creatures though are even better, the practical effects creating wholly unique monsters, mainly the sea dragon and the flea, the physicality of these creatures being adding to the dark world of the film, with the exaggerated style of them doing great work in showing the otherworldly nature of the film.
Overall, Tale of Tales is a very engrossing and brilliantly dark collection of fairy tales. You can clearly see the roots of most modern fantasy in the original stories, with the baroque style of everything creating a timeless feel, along with the presence of entertainers being a good reminder of how these stories have passed on. Whilst the other two stories don’t quite reach the quality of the first one, they are all intriguing and brilliantly dark and twisted which kept me enthralled, even if there were pacing issues.
My Rating: 4/5