Three fairy tales, three royal families: the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) magically conceives a son; the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) unwittingly courts a pair of old-crone sisters; the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) is reluctant to marry off his daughter.
Adapted from the fairy tales of 16th century Neopolitan poet Giambattista Basile, and featuring an ogre, a sea-dragon and a flea the size of a cow, it’s fair to say Tale Of Tales represents a surprising change of pace for Italian director Matteo Garrone, still best known for his naturalistic Mafia-drama feature debut, Gomorra. It’s also his first English-language movie featuring stars like John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek and Toby Jones to revel in its elegant oddness, as it flits between a trio of opulently rendered stories about royal-types whose unchecked desires ultimately bring them grief.
The shared moral of these tales is obvious, and it is what binds them, but aside from two scenes in which the three royal families are brought briefly together (one funeral, one wedding), there’s no real narrative connection. What you have is essentially a portmanteau picture, flitting between its three loose strands and never quite balancing its elements to the best effect.
While occasionally frustrating, Tale Of Tales is never dull.
Opening with the unexpected sight of John C. Reilly in deep-sea diving armour fighting a salamanderish aquatic dragon, the story of the Queen Of Longtrellis (Hayek) and her sorcerously gestated albino son (Christian Lees), who has a troublesome identical twin from another mother, is far more engaging than that of Cassell’s sweatily lecherous King of Strongcliff, who lusts after a pair of crone sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) based only on their singing voices and a single soft finger poked through a keyhole. The latter hoves closer to farce, with Cassell’s performance a full-on ham-hock bludgeon, and it’s unclear why the sisters had to be played by younger actors slathered in unconvincing prosthetics. The Toby Jones strand, meanwhile, is the strangest of the three, featuring the aforementioned giant flea (cuter than you’d think) and a mishap which, via a fanciful guessing game, sees his romance-craving daughter (Bebe Cave) accidentally forced into marriage with a cave-dwelling ogre (Guillaume Delaunay).
While occasionally frustrating, Tale Of Tales is at least never dull, and maintains a baroque visual appeal throughout. As you’d expect from the director of Gomorrah, the effects are mostly practical, and the action primarily set and location-based, so it feels more tactile and palpable than the mainstream’s CGI-infested fantasies. A better bet, then, than a Huntsman movie.
A lavish curio that at times tests your patience, but rewards you with its sumptuous design.