The idea of using 19th-century fabulist Hans Christian Andersen's stories as a way to investigate his emotionally turbulent life is provocative, but screenwriter Kit Hesketh Harvey and director Philip Saville fail to exploit its potential. Young Hans (Kieran Bew), the son of a chronically ill shoemaker and a slatternly laundress (Geraldine James) who works at an asylum, brightened his bleak childhood by making up and acting out fanciful tales. When his father dies, naive Hans makes his way to Copenhagen to live with his aunt. Unable to find her, he must take the most inexpensive lodging he kind find, which turns out to be in the attic of a whorehouse. Determined to be an actor, Hans lucks into two fortuitous friendships: songbird Jenny Lind (Flora Montgomery) arranges an audition after Hans impresses her with his gallantry, and wealthy Jonas Collin (James Fox) befriends him because Hans is kind to his crippled daughter, Jette (Emily Hamilton). The Collin Family adopts Hans and even persuades Denmark's Prince Christian (Edward Atterton) to give him a craftsman's scholarship, but the starry-eyed aspiring thespian is determined succeed on stage. Fortunately for Hans, the Prince's wife (Caroline Harker) overhears one of Hans's tall tales and hires him as storyteller for her children. Throughout Hans's publishing triumphs and subsequent celebrity, which includes a friendship with Charles Dickens (Simon Callow), he remains fixated on lustrous Jenny Lind and never realizes that mousy Jette carries a torch for him. Hans's unrequited love gives birth to such delightful yarns as "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Match Girl." While the film's fantasy sequences are handsomely produced it founders on the biographical segments, despite the efforts of a generally fine cast. Amidst an experienced ensemble, newcomer Bew fails to distinguish himself with a performance that seems to characterize Andersen as the village idiot.
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