When I saw The Cell many years ago, I admired the director’s vision, but in terms of acting, plot, dialogue—anything other than visuals—it fell flat. I hoped that some day Tarsem Singh would get his hands on a good script and a more talented cast.
The Fall is that and more. The story, while uncomplicated, is solid. The acting, especially in the interaction of the two leads, can be charming and heartbreaking, often at once. And visually? It’s one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. The Cell is nothing in comparison.
I could go on and on about how spectacular and lush and arresting it is, but I’d do it no justice. Suffice it to say that if Parrish, Alma-Tadema and Beethoven teamed up with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, The Fall is the sort of movie they’d make. The closest films I can compare it to are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Pan’s Labyrinth. If you ask me—well, I wrote the review so I guess I asked myself—The Fall surpasses them easily.
Even though I’ve seen it five times now, I still hesitate to define it outright as a fantasy, though there are certainly fantastical sequences. Were I to say that it’s not a fantasy, but rather a drama interwoven with an imaginary second narrative, that wouldn’t describe it either. The portrayal of daily life contains a carnival of magical imagery, while in the most fantastical sequences the deepest real-world emotions are expressed. The fantasy and reality are not separate.
The plot comes from Bulgarian children’s adventure film Yo Ho Ho, in which a young boy recovering from a broken arm befriends an old man in a hospital and together they imagine wild things. Set in 1920s Los Angeles, The Fall focuses on a young migrant laborer named Alexandria and her friend, a recently paralyzed stunt man named Roy Walker (a pretty ironic last name, I’d say). Many of the cast and crew, including first-time actress Catinca Untaru, believed during filming that the actor who played Roy (the entirely charming Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies) was paralyzed in real life. Much of Catinca’s dialogue with Lee was adlibbed, giving their interactions a feeling of authenticity she might not have otherwise been able to pull off as an inexperienced actress.
In the commentary, screenwriter Dan Gilroy frequently refers to The Fall as a love story. It’s true: adult Roy and child Alexandria clearly love each other, and in a non-icky way. That alone is a rarity in films. Usually when a little girl loves an older man she isn't related to, it’s creepy as hell. Not that this movie is all sweetness, mind you. Roy, out of a suicidal depression following his accident, manipulates Alexandria into getting him drugs. But even at his most unsavory, it’s clear he genuinely cares for her.
The title refers to several falls: the stunt gone wrong that lands Roy in the hospital; Alexandria’s falls (one that broke her arm and a second in which she was injured trying to find morphine for Roy); and perhaps most of all, Roy’s fall into despair. The bulk of the real-world plot revolves around the friendship between Alexandria and Roy, Alexandria’s terrifying discoveries in the hospital and Roy’s duplicity. Interspersed with all this is the story of the Blue Bandit, who travels with a mysterious crew (an Indian, an escaped African slave, a demolitions expert and Charles Darwin) to seek revenge on the evil Governor Odious and capture the heart of Odious’s beautiful betrothed.
Throughout the film, there are moments when I thought for sure the plot was about to seriously go south to Suckville, but that never happens. It just occasionally scared the crap out of me instead, which is OK. Ultimately, the story is about the triumph of hope and love over the desire to give up and give in to despondency.
The Fall made $3 million in the box office, which must be micro-peanuts compared to the budget. Filmed in South Africa, all over India, Sumatra, the Andaman Islands, Czech Republic, Namibia, Fiji and a few other places, it must have been horrendously expensive. So go get the DVD! Get Tarsem out of debt. If we’re lucky, the movie he’s currently working on will actually get made, but you can never be sure with the really expensive visionary types. But even if he never makes another film, he has created a masterpiece in this one.