Matteo Garrone’s stunning intertwining trilogy of macabre and peculiar fairy tales is brought to breathtaking life by a precise and painterly hand. It possesses the left-field spirit and humour of a Terry Gilliam production and features a superb cast of actors.
Loosely based on Giambattista Basile’s dark collection of stories, the film begins with the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) quietly weeping while all around her are feeling joy, her sadness stemming from a void that can only be filled by a child. When a hooded stranger visits the palace promising to fulfil that very wish if her king (John C Reilly) kills and produces a sea beast’s heart for her consumption, she cannot refuse.
The second strand tells the story of the lustful king of Strongcliff, whose thirst for the opposite sex cannot be quenched. That is, until he encounters the beautiful tones of an elderly woman who hides in her small house with her adoring sister. He must have her.
Lastly and by no means least, king of Highhills (Toby Jones) and a single father must learn not to gamble with his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) as if she is a commodity. Instead of seeing to her needs, he chooses to nurture a flea until it grows to a gigantic size.
Tale Of Tales features some extraordinary creature design. Imaginative and tangible beasts stalk across striking vistas. For example when the King of Longtrellis takes to a lake in his medieval scuba suit to slay the sea beast, it’s pearly, luminescent skin shimmers, its tail whipping through the water to impressive and dramatic effect thanks to such rich and textured visuals.
Bebe Cave seriously impresses as a naïve daughter who is essentially given away to an ogre as his wife. Her plight is a bloody and surprising one. Meanwhile, Salma Hayek turns in a ferocious performance, her overbearing motherly love and simmering jealousy expertly handled.
At times she is terrifying. Toby Jones switches between absent-minded and kind of cruel with aplomb. But the most moving thread is between the two sisters, played by Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael, who long for eternal youth instead of valuing their eternal bond.
Garrone’s English-language debut is just as classy and striking as his previous work.