Fall, The (India/United Kingdom/United States, 2006)
Pretty pictures - that what The Fall has to offer. It's impossible to debate director Tarsem Singh's (or the single-monikered "Tarsem," as he prefers to be called) flair for the visual, and his four-year odyssey across more than two-dozen countries pays dividends in the way the movie looks. It's too bad there's not much to go along with all those arresting images. The way in which the story unfolds evokes The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride, but the synthesis of the elements marks The Fall as vastly inferior to either. Sometimes, looking good isn't enough.
The film opens in the mid-1910s (or thereabouts - the date is only specified as "a long, long time ago," but there are plenty of contextual hints about when it might be) in Los Angeles. Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a stuntman in early Hollywood productions, is in a hospital after injuring himself in the line of duty. Another patient is a five-year old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has broken an arm. The two strangers become companions after Roy intercepts a childish note intended for one of the nurses, Sister Evelyn (Justine Waddell). Roy begins entertaining Alexandria with a tale of five great buccaneers on a quest to kill the evil Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). The leader of the group, the Masked Bandit (also played by Pace), guides his compatriots through a series of perilous situations that include taking a princess (Waddell) captive on their way to the blue city that surrounds Odious' palace.
One interesting aspect of the film is that although Roy is narrating the story, we see it as Alexandria envisions it. Thus, the characters are represented by individuals from her everyday life, transformed by her imagination (much as the inhabitants of Oz were formed from the template of people Dorothy knew in Kansas). When Roy labels one of the buccaneers as an "Indian," Alexandria pictures a man from India while Roy intends the individual to be a Native American. The imagery that Alexandria's mind gives to Roy's words provides the most compelling reason to stay awake during The Fall. There's a blue city, an island of pristine white sand in the middle of a sparkling ocean, a massive labyrinth, a stone staircase that ends in a sheer drop, a swimming elephant, and so on… Unfortunately, neither the text of Roy's narrative nor the hospital tale where these two interact is likely to keep the average viewer intrigued.
Perhaps Tarsem should have taken a lesson from The Princess Bride, in which a grandfather tells his sick grandson an epic story of love and revenge. That one involves larger-than-life characters, bandits with masks, and a princess, too. The difference is that the story-within-a-story that absorbs most of The Princess Bride's running time is far more enjoyable than the yarn Roy spins. It starts out okay. In fact, the first 45 minutes (or so) draw us in. But the second and third chapters are perfunctory and unsatisfying. The Fall gets us to a point where we're interested in the events of Roy and Alexandria's imaginary world, then disposes of them with little grace. That's because "real world" events supplant fantasy.
At first, the relationship between Roy and Alexandria appears to be traversing a familiar "buddy movie" path, but that's not the case. She's an innocent who feeds off his words. He's a manipulator who wants to find a way to kill himself and sees her as an effective, unwitting accomplice. His goal in telling her the story is to persuade her to pilfer a bottle of pills for him. While Alexandria is sweet and likeable, Roy is neither, and it makes it hard to care about these two and whether their imaginary adventures have a happy ending (or, in fact, an ending at all). By taking the movie into such dark territory in the "real" world, Tarsem effectively poisons the well of the fantasy world.
Lee Pace, who has found some success as the male lead in TV's Pushing Daisies, is effective as Roy: superficially charming but hiding a wellspring of self-loathing. Young Catinca Untaru, a nine-year old from Romania making her feature debut, is appealing, although her skills as an actress are unrefined. Justine Waddell, despite having high billing, isn't given much more to do than look attractive in her princess' costume and her nurse's whites. This isn't surprising because, when it comes down to it, Tarsem is more interested in indulging his desire to throw imposing images at the viewer than in investing time and energy in the characters and their stories.
Has Tarem evolved since his debut feature, The Cell? Certainly, his powers as a visual director have not diminished, but his abilities as a storyteller have suffered. Some filmmakers can use images to enhance their movies. For others, that's all there is, and it's not enough. The Fall is never uninteresting to look at but, beyond its ability to delight the eyes, it's a dull and hollow experience.
Fall, The (India/United Kingdom/United States, 2006)
Cast: Catinca Untaru, Lee Pace, Justine Waddell, Daniel Caltagirone
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis & Tarsem Singh, based on "Yo Ho Ho" by Valery Petrov
Cinematography: Colin Watkinson
Music: Krishna Levy
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
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