Tale of Tales
TALE OF TALES, drama, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
Once upon a time there were three kingdoms, ruled by three oddball kings, in stories that otherwise do not seem to have much to do with one another. They’ve been culled from the seminal collection of Giambattista Basile, a Neapolitan contemporary of Shakespeare’s, whose Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones) is the earliest known source for the Brothers Grimm and the Western canon of fairytales.
Matteo Garrone, the Neapolitan director who gave us the gritty truecrime Gomorrah (2008), here plunges into the world of fantasy with his first English-language film. Visually, it’s mostly splendid. In terms of pacing, editing, and storytelling, not so much.
It must be emphasized up front that “Entertainment for Little Ones” isn’t what it used to be. In our cautious, protective culture, the blood, gore, and sex that runs rampant in these tales would put them beyond the reach of American children till they’re eligible to vote — if the film were rated, which it is not.
The first tale introduces the King and Queen of Longtrellis, played by John C. Reilly (who seems more like the King of Queens than a medieval monarch) and Salma Hayek. The queen wants a child, they’ve had no luck the traditional way, and a soothsayer prescribes eating the heart of a sea monster, prepared by a virgin. The king dies slaying the monster but procures the entrée, which is suitably prepared, but the virgin has a taste to test the seasoning, and she and the queen produce identical albino sons (Christian and Jonah Lees) from their separate wombs.
Up the valley in the Kingdom of Highhills, His Highness (Toby Jones) has a pet flea that grows to the size of an Alfa Romeo. He also has a marriageable daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), whom he promises to whoever can pass a certain test, and we all know how those deals can go bad.
And across the way, the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) has a serious sex addiction that takes us through a saucy ménage à trois and the aftermath of an orgy, until he hears a beautiful song and falls in love with the singer sight unseen. That’s key, because the voice belongs to an ugly old crone. The crone and her equally cronish sister are played by Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael in heavy makeup. You assume that one of them is going to somehow be transformed into a young beauty, stripping away the latex wrinkles like a contestant on the old TV show Masquerade Party. But things don’t always work out the way you expect.
The locations and the costumes are magnificent, the cinematography is lush, and the acting is solid (you can’t fault Reilly for being miscast). But scenes run too long, and the stories intertwine like brambles around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and sometimes they’re nigh impenetrable. — Jonathan Richards
The reigns must fall: John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek