Read your fairy literature before you take the children to see Fairy Tale: A True Story. The film, based on a true story about two British girls whose photographs of fairies sparked a debate in the early '20s, doesn't ever explain what fairies really are. Although you get a few tidbits about the habits of fairies in the girls' conversations, at the end of the film you're still wondering what fairies do besides lure people into their ring. Children will wonder, too, especially in light of the film's confusing and unsuccessful attempts to link fairies to angels.

The screenwriters, unfortunately, take the least interesting approach to the tale, focusing on the adult debate over the authenticity of the strange photographs, rather than sticking with the girls' sense of magic and the adults' unwillingness to accept it-the classic and timeless approach of Miracle on 34th Street and so many other charming films about childhood. Fairy Tale's confusing exposition provides a good indication of what is to follow, namely a film with no discernable point of view that's directed at no definable audience. Continually shifting from the adults' perspective on the children to the children's perspective on the fairies, the film is little more than an episodic portrayal of events that begins with Frances' (Elizabeth Earl) arrival at the home of her cousin Elsie Wright (Florence Hoath), in a small West Yorkshire village in 1917. Frances, whose mother is dead, comes to live with the Wrights after her father is declared missing in action. Elsie's brother died a short time ago from pneumonia, and Mrs. Wright (Phoebe Nicholls) is inconsolable. The girls take pictures of the fairies to cheer her up. She then attends a meeting of theosophists in which Edward Gardner (Bill Nighy) talks about his belief in angels. Mrs. Wright gives him copies of the photographs, presumably because she believes there's some relationship between the existence of fairies and angels.

In real life, Gardner gave the photos to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who wrote about them a short time later in The Strand. In the film, after Gardner gives the photos to Doyle, the investigator seeks expert advice. One interminable sequence involves his attempts to authenticate the girls' claims that the photos are single-exposure. Other scenes involve Harry Houdini-played by a terribly miscast Harvey Keitel-whose presence in the film is never clearly explained. In a better movie, Mrs. Wright and the three men-Doyle, Gardner and Houdini-would represent the forces in the adult world that conspire to revive our childhood belief in magic. In Fairy Tale, they fall into that black hole in the middle of every movie in which there's no apparent point of view.

The rendering of the fairies, by visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber, is flawed by the direction, which fails to distinguish the individual identities of the fairies, and by some mistakes in scale in the scenes in which we see the fairies flying. At times, it appears that their insect-like bodies are larger than houses and trees. Since we never discover their purpose, the fairies may as well be insects-their existence holds no magic for the audience. It's always a pleasure to see Peter O'Toole, even when, as is the case here, he's in a different movie than the rest of the cast. He's the only actor in the film who survives Charles Sturridge's direction, or lack of it-although Phoebe Nicholls does at times-and the only adult who seems to understand the implications of his belief in fairies and is actually enjoying it. The combined talents of cinematographer Michael Coulter (Sense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and production designer Michael Howells (Emma, Orlando) certainly make Fairy Tale visually interesting, but that doesn't rescue a film as misconceived as this one.

--Maria Garcia