His world was magical. His legacy…immortal.
Born into poverty and raised by a sickly dreamer father and a drunken, depraved mother Hans Christian Andersen spent the majority of his formative years in constant daydreams, hoping to escape his miserable reality through fantasy. When his father dies, he is shipped off to Copenhagen to seek his fortune. There, he is befriended by famous singer Jenny Lind and by Danish businessman Jonas Collins. Lind becomes a romantic obsession of the young Andersen, while Collins tries to find him educational and financial opportunities. After rejecting the Crown Prince's offer of a tradesman's scholarship (but enchanting the Crown Princess with his imaginative fairy stories), Andersen is sent off to school to study, and when he returns he is bursting with ideas and imaginative writings. During the birthday celebration for Jonas' daughter Jetta (who secretly loves Hans), Andersen's play about a tinderbox sparks an offer to publish his work. Within months, Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales are the toast of Europe. Still hopelessly infatuated with Jenny (and ignoring the obvious longing of Jetta), Andersen travels the Continent, following the diva from country to country. In London, great admirer Charles Dickens befriends him and an invitation to spend the weekend stretches into many weeks of Andersen's sometime annoying antics. When Jenny moves on to America, Andersen returns to Copenhagen and a hero's welcome. There will be a gala in his honor, and Jenny has agreed to sing. Hans sees this as the perfect time to finalize the "happily ever after" to his near fairy tale life. But existence is not a children's story, and there are no guarantees of bliss when dealing with reality. It's all part of the strange, sensational saga of Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale.
Watching Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale, one is struck by how similar it is in style and storytelling to a great, lost film of two decades ago, 1985's Dreamchild. That remarkable movie, written by the immensely inventive British author Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven), attempted to tie the relationship between the Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (far better known by his nom de plume Lewis Carroll) and Dodgson's neighbor and personal muse, a young girl named Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland). It dealt with celebrity, the life of the mind, and the rather disturbing suggestions of an unnatural attraction between the good Reverend and the child. Using actual recreations of Carroll's masterworks (the characters brought to brutish, disturbing life by Jim Henson's Creature Shop), the dark, purely psychological underpinnings to Dodgson's objectives are explored and, perhaps, explained. It's a densely complicated film utilizing flashbacks, stunning visualizations, and Potter/Carroll's well-known wordplay to emphasize an idea that most great art comes out of even greater suffering (or in the case of Carroll, greater perversion).
Unfortunately, Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale doesn't have such an illustrious literary pedigree. Indeed, it occasionally plays like a foreign made mini-series, meaning to capture all aspects of one man's life within an ever-increasing running time. While it does use Andersen's universally adored fairy tales incorporated into real life events to help dramatize the struggles the Danish author had to overcome throughout the years, the device just doesn't have the same significance that makes Dreamchild such a stunning achievement.
Still, the mixing of fantasy and reality does elevate Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale above more mundane biographical films. As the story progresses and becomes more intricate, the fantasies become deeper and more elaborate. By the time we reach the Snow Queen episode near the end of the film, the retelling of the famous fable so accurately mirrors what is happening between the characters that it seems like Hollywood crafted kismet. But this is apparently not the case here. With Andersen's life, like that of any good writer, events observed became fuel for character idiosyncrasies and midpoint plot twists. The people populating his fiction came directly out of reactions to allies and enemies. Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale does a wonderful job of showing the hodgepodge aspects of words, how a tidbit here, an overheard conversation there, and a lot of everyday ephemera end up channeled through the creative mind into something transcending their common origins. And if you can get through the awkward, overstuffed opening of the film (more awful events occur in the first twenty minutes of this movie than in any ten tales), you will be rewarded with an emotional, evocative journey filled with enchantment and melancholy. Lovers of fairy tales in their purest forms will giggle with glee over the re-insertion of the dark, violent material found within their fanciful flights, When the Sea Witch cuts off the little mermaid's tongue, the waters swirl with blood. The little match girl's feet are so black with frostbite you can feel the pain through the screen. It's this attention to detail and the Danish writer's enormous heart (at least, as portrayed here) that keeps Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale from disintegrating into a vignette heavy, segmented story.
This is not to say that the film is perfect. As with most period pieces set in foreign lands, everyone speaks like they are projecting from the stage front at the Old Vic. Once one gets over the Anglicized way everyone speaks (bet you didn't know Denmark had so many individuals of the cockney persuasion), you are rewarded with performances of genuine warmth and interesting invention. Newcomer Kieran Bew plays Andersen as part village idiot, part Ichabod Crane, and provides the profoundly optimistic and yet troubled and tormented inner workings of this storyteller's talent. Spastic in stature and socially awkward, Bew's body language and stammering demeanor evoke an untapped author who seems to have stories bottled up inside him, awaiting release. He is so good at telling Andersen's tales that one wishes to hear more. Equally impressive is Emily Hamilton as the complex, crippled Jetta Collins who longs for Andersen's love in a way that will have your heart aching every time she is on screen. In the history of unrequited emotion, no one has ever captured the desperate pain of caring without reciprocity the way Hamilton personifies it. The depth or her feeling simply spills from every part of her body. As Jenny Lind, Flora Montgomery is unattractive, mannered, and far too young looking to play the role of a world-renowned opera diva. As an object of longing for Andersen, she cannot convey the necessary opulence or personality and it makes Hans' star-struck insistence on loving only her seem overly irrational, no matter how many psychological pronouncements the rest of the cast reduce it to. While the remainder of the characters is inhabited by actors of great skill and nuance, the weak Jenny prevents Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale from transcending its small screen roots.
Artisan, through its Family Home Entertainment division and Hallmark, does a very nice job with the DVD of this movie. The 1.33:1 full screen image is detailed and clear, so much so that a couple of cheesy CGI sequences really stand out as fake. Still, the color scheme is incandescent overall and the movie looks lush and beautiful. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Soundtrack is somewhat of a misnomer. There are no channel challenging sequences in Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale, so there is really no difference between the 5.1 and the 2.0 Stereo. Either offering provides clear, upfront dialogue and atmospheric musical accompaniment. Surprisingly, for an Artisan title, there are a couple of bonuses here worth mentioning. First up is a short, sweet five-minute puff piece for the film featuring a few "making-of" moments and some cast and crew comments. While nothing very intricate, it's still nice to hear people discuss the project they are working on. Also available is a gallery of Hallmark trailers touting many of the made-for-television fantasies the studio has created over the last couple of years. Some (including a Bridget Fonda starring Snow Queen and modern day Jack and the Beanstalk) seem interesting, at least in small ad-sized snippets.
Stripped of their Hollywood style re-imagining, the classic fairy tales of writers like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen endure because of their well-crafted storylines, intricate moralizing, and breathtakingly literate nature. They don't speak down to the audience but into and through them. Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale tries for the same specialized presentation. And for the most part, it works wonderfully. While it is not without its flaws, it is still an emotional, mesmerizing look at an evocative, naïve innocent among the populace. Like the nightingale, whose singing soothes the Chinese Emperor's heart, this film will fill you with magic, for the most part.
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