Movie Review: Tale of Tales (2015)

“A feast for the imagination”

1 Stars
Tale of Tales (2015)

Tale of Tales (2015)


Director: Matteo Garrone

Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones

Synopsis: From the bitter quest of the Queen of Longtrellis, to two mysterious sisters who provoke the passion of a king, to the King of Highhills obsessed with a giant Flea, these tales are inspired by the fairytales by Giambattista Basile.


There was a time when movie adaptations of fairy tales were the sole preserve of Uncle Walt and his nine old men, but other filmmakers now so regularly drink from the dark well of Medieval folklore that the history of recent cinema is awash with adaptations of the most famous tales (there have been no less than 23 various versions of Snow White and Cinderella made in the past 20 years).   Perhaps this is why Italian director Matteo Garrone, who first came to international prominence with his 2008 crime drama Gomorra, turned to three comparatively obscure works from 17th Century Italian writer Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone collection for Tale of Tales.

Unreasoning obsession provides the only connective tissue for these interweaving tales.   The first sees a disconsolate childless queen (Salma Hayek – After the Sunset, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!) so desperate for a child that she eats the heart of the sea monster that claimed the life of her husband (John C. Reilly – Gangs of New York, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues); in the second, a dissolute king (Vincent Cassel – Trance, Child 44) is bewitched by the singing voice of an old hag whom he mistakes for a young virgin, while the third sees another king (Toby Jones – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Dad’s Army) becoming so enamoured of an oversized flea that he allows his daughter to be claimed by a mountain-dwelling ogre.

Tale of Tales occupies a disappointing half-world situated somewhere between the safe, if slightly ghoulish, fairy tales of our childhood and the Gothic horror with to we’ve grown accustomed over the past few years.   It feels like a bland compromise at times, particularly as Garrone wasn’t angling for the family-friendly market (Tale of Tales received a 15 certificate in the UK).    There’s also a distracting emotional remoteness about most of the characters which prevents us from connecting with them in the way that we’re supposed to; only Violet, the luckless daughter of the flea-loving King, ever really earns our sympathy: Hayek’s queen is too cold, Jones’ king too silly, and Cassel’s too self-centred.   By forsaking that Gothic feel, though, Garrone affords himself the opportunity to create a visually ravishing world, eschewing grimy realism to bask in light and airy Italian castles and verdant woodland, and despite its sea monsters, giant fleas, and dent-headed ogre, Tale of Tales chooses to tell its stories through the desires and weaknesses of its characters rather than flashy special effects, which makes a refreshing – if somewhat quaint-looking – change in this CGI-era.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Tale of Tales never really grips its audience in the way that it should.   Not only are each of the tales too short for a movie of their own, they struggle even to fill a third of that time, and only one can truthfully be described as having a definitive conclusion.

(Reviewed 7th May 2016)

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