Tale of Tales – Review

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All fiction is fantasy. No, really; every movie, regardless of genre, is an invitation to use our imaginations, and every movie takes that suspension of disbelief and runs with it in different ways. Just because a film might ostensibly fall under the label ‘fantasy’ doesn’t mean that the realm it creates is any less fictional, and just because a film happens to include ogres, sea-monsters and magic spells doesn’t mean it’s any less real. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales – quite literally a world away from the drab brutality of his 2008 crime flick Gomorrah, and populated by a cast picked perfectly for their faces and individual merits – uses the veil of mythic kingdoms to seed some timeless ideals about parenthood, family, and growing old, and serves it up on a silver platter next to the giant, still-beating heart of a sea-monster.

There’s always the sense that we’re learning something deep and infallible about the human condition, no matter the otherworldly castles or queer goings-on of the heart.  

The unnamed Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) desperately wants a child. After she and her King (John C. Reilly) are visited by a hooded figure promising them an heir, they decide to perform the creepy man’s instructions: rip out the heart of said sea-monster, have it cooked by a virgin, then eat it. In an instantly iconic battle sequence, the King manages to defeat the salty menace and, lo and behold, the Queen becomes instantly pregnant. Fast-forward 16 years, and their magically-borne son – Elias – has discovered an identical twin, Jonah, birthed by the same virgin who first cooked the diabolical heart. While the prince-and-pauper dynamic infuriates the Queen, elsewhere in the Kingdom, the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) attempts to find a suitable husband for Princess Violet (an absolute discovery in Bebe Cave), and the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) unwittingly finds a new flame in the form of two elderly sisters, Imma and Dora (Shirley Henderson and Stacy Martin, in prosthetics up to the eyeballs). Although their tales never truly converge – as we’d expect of an ensemble piece with such a long run-time – these wicked and wonderful characters indulge in all the desires of the flesh and soul, to an extent that’s smartly facilitated by their genre. Each time they find themselves face-to-face with a unbelievable creature, or suffer at the cruelly cyclical rules of the world they live in, there’s always the sense that we’re learning something deep and infallible about the human condition, no matter the otherworldly castles or queer goings-on of the heart.

The tone, of light mingling with dark, feels as if Garrone has his thumb and forefinger tightly on a dimmer switch; he constantly plays with throwing dank shadows in the corners of a lighthearted scene about suitors visiting in the dead of night, or lightening the mood of an ogre attack with a blackly comic sense of timing. That absolute mastery of world-building is most prevalent in the rich mix of monsters that occupy this fairytale-scape: the sea-monster which holds the key to the Queen’s happiness is a breathtaking mutation on a salamander, while later on a giant bat-beast incites buckets of sweat with its fearsome, skeletal presence. These creatures are mostly brought to life by practical effects, and the resultant magic rivals any on display in the similarly aesthetic-driven Pan’s Labyrinth.

Elsewhere, though, there’s a slight lack of innovation between the cracks: the basic black ‘16 years later’ card that fades in after Elias’ birth is somewhat disheartening, especially as it follows such vibrant visual storytelling – plus, there’s sometimes an issue to be had with the camerawork in general, which now and then lends itself to TV-level thriller point-of-view, where a more designed approach would have given us the maximum dreamlike mood that the lavish costumes and sets yearn for. Then again, Tale of Tales revels in its texture; in abandoning potentially coded genre cinematography, Garrone’s world is one that feels like it could reach out of the screen and bite you at any moment.

As the movie draws on, and each yarn is littered with more beats that feel somehow both ripped from a Brothers Grimm book and your own story-hungry subconscious, you come to realise something rather profound: you never want this to end, like a child glued to his or her bed as a book being read to you draws you deeper into its pages. You want to keep dropping in on these misfits’ lives, and would happily do so for their children, and their children – and so on, until either you drop dead or the stories stop. Therein lies the inner spark of Tale of Tales: there is no overarching political allegory here, nor is there really any allusion to goings-on in our ‘real’ world. For Garrone has told a simple tale, and told it simply.

Tale of Tales is released on June 17 in the UK.

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