An ageing musician takes time out for some archaeology and seeks out the hiding place of a fabled lost crown that supposedly protects Great Britain from invasion. Here’s our look at director Leigh Tarrant’s supernatural thriller A Curious Tale.
M.R. James is one of Britain’s most celebrated and influential storytellers. Best remembered for his ghost stories, he redefined the genre for the 20th century by abandoning many of the fantastical and gothic clichés of his predecessors. He replaced them with more realistic, contemporary, and grounded settings. In doing so, he also happened to create some of the best supernatural short stories that have ever been written. James’ stories have been adapted many times and now British director Leigh Tarrant gives us his modern-day adaptation of one of James’ bleakest stories “A Warning to the Curious”
Opening with flashy graphics, we are given some narrated exposition where we learn that hundreds of years ago, during the time of the Spanish Armada, three royal crowns were buried in the Sussex town of Snowgood. As the film progresses, we discover that people believe these crowns to have magical powers and that they protect Sussex from invasion. According to the stories passed down from the locals, only one of the crowns remains and it is hidden away, awaiting discovery.
After a horrific yet-stilted scene involving a local archaeologist, we are introduced to our quintessential Jamesian protagonist Rattlebone – a veteran Australian musician played by the lively Pete Tindall. Rattlebone also has a keen interest in archaeology, deciding to come to the town of Snowgood to look for the truth in the local legend. Tindall gives an easy-going, naturalistic performance and becomes an engaging character for the audience to follow.
Tarrant’s direction is fine, he captures the beauty of the local scenery by using a mixture of long shots and wide shots. He also finds some nice establishing shots of old trains, lakes, and stately homes that keep our interest, while a couple of his travelling shots enable us to get a feel for the town and its people, but the lack of grading or colouring used on the film gives it a sort of daytime TV feel that can make it seem a little dated. However, Tarrant manages to inject some drama into the story by starting proceedings deliberately slow and then allowing things to gather more pace as the plot unfolds. This enables him to draw the viewer in and build up the suspense so, by the end of the film when the shots and cuts are purposely quicker, the viewer is noticeably more unsettled
A Curious Tale gives us all the Jamesian qualities we look for in an adaptation of his work; a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town, or country estate. A nondescript, and rather naive gentleman-scholar as a protagonist. Along with the discovery of something that unlocks, calls, or attracts the unwelcome attentions of a supernatural menace. Unfortunately, the surrounding elements remain a little bit flat while the horror isn’t scary enough to make this 52-minute short a complete success.
That said A Curious Tale is an enjoyable film with some genuinely creepy moments, plus Tarrant deserves credit for his brief but brilliant homage on the beach to the classic Michael Hordern starring Whistle And I’ll Come To You from 1968.