Having recently reviewed the BBC’s adaptation of The Mezzotint for its A Ghost Story for Christmas series, I was mildly surprised to have another film version of an M. R. James story come my way so soon, A Curious Tale, based on his story “A Warning to the Curious”, which had been adapted for the original run of A Ghost Story for Christmas in 1972.
A Curious Tale’s opening narration by Neill McKenzie, who also plays an antique dealer, informs us of the legend of three royal crowns buried near the coast to ward off any invading armies. One has since been found and melted down for it’s gold, another corroded over time by the sea itself. And one is still buried. This segues into a prologue in which a local archaeologist (Paul Brandis) finds out the hard way about the dangers of looking for the last crown.
Twelve years later, bluesman Rattlebone, played by Australian blues guitarist Pete Tindal, comes to the town of Snowgood to do some treasure hunting. He discovered that the third crown was guarded by the Hagar family, the last of whom died a few years back.
Writer/director Leigh Tarrant takes a somewhat leisurely approach to the story and we spend a good bit of time following Rattlebone as he explores the town and talks to some of the locals like the Vicar (Simon Mallin), a Farmer’s wife (Amanda Dann) and Doctor Blackman (Bill Johnson) the only other guest at the inn he’s staying at. There’s the odd strange sound or a silent figure in the distance, but mostly it’s dialogue interrupted by some beautiful scenery.
It’s not until the second half of A Curious Tale that the plot starts to turn darker as Rattlebone does indeed find the crown. And the spirit of William Hagar (Ian Kear), its last guardian, finds him. Realizing what’s happening he tries to rebury the crown, but will that appease the spirits?
A Curious Tale runs just under an hour which is a good length for an adaptation, however loose, of a short story like “A Warning to the Curious”. It also means that while it still takes half its length to kick into gear that’s a lot easier to deal with than half of a ninety minute feature. The more leisurely pacing also fits the style of the author’s writing.
The last half of A Curious Tale does work up some nice atmosphere and manages to feel creepy even during scenes bathed in bright sunlight such as an encounter with an ominous looking farm hand and the film’s climax.
For a film with what appears to be an amateur cast the performances are surprisingly good. The one exception being a struggle between two characters that really looked sloppy, but poor fight choreography is a curse of low budget films in general. In the same vein, while he has a background in documentaries and music videos this is Tarrant’s first narrative feature and he does a good job with it, making what could have felt stodgy and old fashioned enjoyably creepy.
Of course with its slower pace and lack of gore, all the bloodshed is off screen, A Curious Tale still won’t be for everyone, although I suspect by this point most readers will know if this kind of slow burn is their kind of thing. And if it is, it’s worth investing an hour of your time in.
A Curious Tale is currently available to stream on Vimeo on Demand and playing festivals. DVDs are available for purchase on the director’s website. You can check the film’s Facebook page for more information.