Tale of Tales takes the form of three random fairy tales, largely unconnected from one another but weaving around and between one another across the film’s generous two-hour-plus running time. This is a film full of magical kingdoms, castles perched high on hills, storybook kings and queens and princesses, wizened hags, extraordinary creatures and with a monstrous ogre thrown in for good measure. In his book ‘Grimm Tales’, which explores the provenance of many of our best-known fairy tales, Philip Pullman espouses the view that fairy tales aren’t concerned with psychology, their characters have no ‘interior life’, good people are good and bad people are bad. Tale of Tales broadly follows this principal – we know little of the lives of the core characters here beyond the events of these stories – yet their worlds are so richly and colourfully drawn it’s not difficult to believe that they’ve lived and loved and fought and lost and will continue to do so long after they’ve turned away from our gaze. In the kingdom of Darkwood the king and queen (John C Reilly and Salma Hayek) are frustrated by their inability to conceive a child. A necromancer provides the solution; the queen must eat the heart of an aquatic dragon cooked by a virgin. The valiant King dies in combat with the dragon but the queen gets her feast – but the virginal cook suffers an unfortunate side effect and a day later they both give birth to identical golden-haired sons. The Queen is jealous of her regal son’s friendship with his lowly ‘twin’ and conspires to keep them apart... by fair means or foul. Meanwhile in the Kingdom of Highmountain the King (Jones) makes a pet of a flea, feeding it bloody steaks until it grows to enormous proportions. But the creature dies and the King, whose daughter Violet has grown restless and wishes to marry a handsome prince, skins his pet and promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can identify the animal hide. A succession of handsome would-be suitors fall by the wayside – until a grotesque ogre solves the puzzle and wins the prize, much to Violet’s horror. The ogre sweeps her off to his cave deep in the hills... In the kingdom of Stronghold, the lusty King (Cassel) is entranced by the singing of a woman he spies down in the town. He can’t see her face but reasons she must be beautiful and he takes to wooing her. But the woman of his dreams is actually the ancient, wrinkled Dora (Hayley Carmichael) who lives in penury with her equally crumpled sister Imma (Shirley Henderson). They concoct a grisly plan by which Imma can spend a night with the King without him seeing what she really looks like...
Tale of Tales is a proudly European movie yet with its medieval trappings, extravagant Kafkaesque beasts, and bizarre, quirky characters, you’d be forgiven for making a comparison with some of Terry Gilliam’s more perverse offerings, albeit with much of Gilliam’s affectation and extravagance removed. These are simple, angular stories, told without artifice but with an enviable clarity. Gerrone brings his bold worlds to the screen with stunning efficacy, with slightly unearthly and remote ‘kingdoms’, jagged and unfriendly landscapes (especially in the segment where Violet is trapped in the ogre’s vertiginous lair) rubbing shoulders with extraordinarily timeless, stately Italian locations. Visually the film just doesn’t put a foot wrong, magnificently capturing the twisted darkness of the very best fairy tales in three stories which all, refreshingly, boast strong female lead characters and which are, at heart, all about greed and desire and jealousy all told in a world so unlike our own and yet populated by people we recognise motivated by emotions we’ve all felt at one time or another.
A treat for the eyes, the heart and possibly even the soul, if we’ve any real criticism of Tale of Tales it’s that we could have done without the odd flash of gratuitous nudity, which really adds nothing to the film except, perhaps, to move it out of the orbit of a younger audience who would surely have been captivated by this gloriously rich, dark and inventive tale of fantasy kingdoms and mythical beasts. We really can’t recommend Tale of Tales highly enough; you might need to work hard to track it down as it’s enjoying an extremely limited theatrical release (it’ll be available on the usual pay-to-view platforms but this is a movie best relished on the big screen) but you’ll be rewarded by one of the most unashamedly enjoyable and utterly magical movie experiences of the year.
TALE OF TALES / CERT:15 / DIRECTOR: MATTEO GERRONE / SCREENPLAY BY EDOARDO ALBINATI, UGO CHITI, MATTEO GARRONE, MASSIMO GAUDIOSO / STARRING SALMA HAYEK, TOBY JONES, VINCENT CASSEL, SHIRLEY HENDERSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10