Director: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Bebe Cave
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Once upon a time, there was a king with a daughter who wanted to marry, a queen who wanted a son, and an old woman who wanted to be young. Sound familiar? Be warned: these aren’t the fairy tales you heard as a child. By the time Tale of Tales is finished, a sea monster has been killed, someone has been flayed and a man has fallen in love with a flea.
Perhaps even more surprising is where these tales have come from: Matteo Garrone, who, a few years ago, brought us Gomorrah, a gangster drama about the real life Naples mafia. Here, he transforms, as if he’s had a sprinkling of pixie dust himself, from Francis Ford Coppola into the next Terry Gilliam. It’s a dizzying achievement that, more than once, will leave you wondering where on earth it’s all going.
Aapting his script (with Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso) from the stories of 17th century writer Giambattista Basile, Garrone presents us with three different narratives, which all loosely overlap. In the first, John C. Reilly’s King of Longtrellis vows to slay a sea serpent, so his wife (Salma Hayek) can eat its heart and become pregnant. In the second, Vincent Cassel’s King of Strongcliff finds his lust sent into overdrive by a local woman (Hayley Carmichael), who turns out to be an old crone – and, a short while later, an old crone who’s been thrown out of a window. In the third, Toby Jones’ King of Highhills finds himself distracted from his daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), by his new insect pet.
Needless to say, none of them end well for, well, anyone really. These are the kind of dark, twisted stories that parents don’t read to their kids anymore – and with good reason. (Put it like this: Roald Dahl would love them.)
The director’s previous films, including reality TV satire Reality, presented life in searing realism, and he uses that same touch here to bring his worlds to vivid life. Giants, magic trees, castles. All the usual elements are here and all of them are oddly believable, thanks to a reliance upon practical effects over CGI. Shot with a careful, painterly eye, the result is almost like watching a picture-book come to life: the landscapes ooze colour, the costumes rival Disney’s most beautiful embroidery, and the props are often dripping with blood.
The cast are deliciously good, from Cassel’s hammy, horny highness to Guillaume Delaunay’s blackly comic (and genuinely intimidating) ogre. One scene, which sees the cheerily ignorant Toby Jones watch an invisible bug hop from one hand to another, is a masterclass in acting at its most simple and effective.
But Garrone’s tale of tales is also, in part, one of women besting their male counterparts – one shot of Salma Hayek’s queen gobbling a gigantic heart like she’s at a Middle-earth Toby Carvery makes it clear that these are not princesses about to embrace their traditional fate. A surprising, stunning transformation leaves Cassel’s king playing the fool and makes Shirley Henderson’s lonely old lady all the more sympathetic, as she croaks and squeaks in desperation for companionship. The brilliant Bebe Cave, meanwhile, steals the whole show as the overlooked Violet, who takes her marital status into her own hands with the kind of enthusiastic heart, physical humour and gentle pathos that marks her out as a bona fide star.
The film is full of painstakingly composed tableaus, such as Reilly and Hayek’s married couple sitting in their thrones, one laughing and one stony-faced. Garrone’s slow pace may leave you frustrated as the two-hour anthology unfolds – Jones and Cave’s story is by far the most engaging – but that frustration arises less from boredom and more from not being able to predict what will happen. Whenever it seems to loom, happiness is whipped away from even the deserving – these are unfamiliar, strange myths that challenge your expectations at every turn. Part-horror, part-fantasy, the result is unabashedly bonkers and enchantingly unique. You won’t know where it’s all going – but when was the last time you could say that about a fairy tale?
Tale of Tales is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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