Film review: Tale of Tales is an imaginative fairy-tale adaptation

Many familiar fairy-tale tropes are present – princes and princesses, sea monsters, ogres and wrinkled hags.

Salma Hayek and John C Reilly in Tale of Tales. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
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Tale of Tales

Director: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel

Four stars

This dark fairy-tale adaptation arrives after earning high praise at the Cannes film festival. Director Matteo Garrone's English-language debut follows a host of cinematic reworkings of classic fairy tales – including Into The Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent – but the Italian director has gone about things rather differently.

Many familiar fairy-tale tropes are present – princes and princesses, sea monsters, ogres and wrinkled hags. But in mining the works of prolific 17th-century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, whose Pantamerone is considered the world's first collection of fairy tales – and was a major influence on the likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen – Garrone has created a work that manages the neat trick of being unpredictable and yet brutally faithful to the grotesque nature of the original source material.

If you thought Into the Woods had a dark underbelly, look away now. Disney this most definitely is not.

The movie focuses on three stories set in royal households. In Selvascura, Salma Hayek's childless queen is driven to extreme measures following the intervention of a soothsayer who allows her to finally have a son. Things go awry when she learns that her son's loyalty is not with her, but with a magical twin born of a servant. In Roccaforte, Vincent Cassel's Lothario king is tricked into marrying a witch after his attempts to kill her result in her transformation into a beautiful maiden. And in Altamonde, Toby Jones's ineffectual king becomes more interested in raising a giant flea than his daughter.

It’s an expansive, surreal feast for the imagination that avoids portmanteau clichés, such as tying all the stories together in the final act. A perceived lack of cohesion could grate with some viewers, but it is a pleasure to watch a movie where the audience genuinely has no idea what ­insanity might come next.