Fall, The (2008)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/30/08 00:00:00

"El Tripeo"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

As anyone who has been a regular reader of my reviews has no doubt figured out by now, I am the kind of moviegoer who thrives on films that offer me a chance to soak up bold and dazzling imagery of a kind that I have never seen before. In fact, if I had to choose between seeing a film with a distinct visual style or a tight and cohesive screenplay, I would almost invariably choose the former because film is, after all, an inherently visual medium and an artist working in this particular field can achieve glories that simply cannot be approximated in print or even in such other visually-based modes of artistic expression as painting or sculpture. However, there is a limit to my willingness to praise a film for its stunning visuals while overlooking its other significant flaws and “The Fall” is a perfect example of one that goes far beyond that limit. This is a wildly ambitious project that contains some of the most singularly extraordinary images to appear on the big screen in the last few years and yet, they never really add up to much in the end because they have been deployed in the service of a singularly ordinary screenplay that is never quite as wondrous as it thinks it is.

The film takes place, for the most part, within the confines of a hospital located on the outskirts of Los Angeles sometime in the early 1920’s. One of the patients is Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a five-year-old Romanian girl with a vivid imagination who is convalescing from a broken arm that she received picking oranges with her family. One day, while roaming around the hospital, she comes across Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a movie stuntman suffering from a broken back (courtesy of a stunt gone wrong) and a broken heart (courtesy of a woman who no longer loves him). To entertain her, Roy begins to spin for her an elaborate tale of five noble heroes--a noble and nameless Indian (Jeetu Verma), escaped slave Otta Bega (Marcus Wesley), explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), a mysterious masked bandit (Emil Hostina) and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill). . .yes, Charles Darwin--who have each sworn, for various reasons, to kill the hateful Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) for the various wrongs that he has done to all of them. Alexandria is instantly hooked by the story but before long, Roy begins to reveal his real purpose for spinning the saga. Despondent over what has become of his life, he wants to kill himself and uses the promise of continuing the story as a carrot to convince Alexandria to sneak into the medicine dispensary and bring back the bottle featuring the letters “M-O-R-P-H-I-N-E.” As his mood darkens, so does the story and before long, the line between the real world and the one conjured up in Alexandria’s mind becomes so blurred that she finds herself becoming a part of the tale as well.

“The Fall” was co-written and directed by Tarsem Singh, whose previous film was the highly controversial mind-bender “The Cell.” The two films share many similarities--both offer viewers lavishly detailed fantasy world filled with strange and occasionally haunting imagery, both involve innocent young women finding themselves trapped, literally or figuratively, inside the mind games of psychologically disturbed men and both mix moments of sheer visual poetry with moments of jarring violence that will no doubt put off some viewers. Although “The Cell” is neither as good as its proponents maintain nor as awful as its naysayers otherwise insist, I more or less admired the film for figuring out a way to tell a story that offered up any number of jaw-dropping images while keeping them within the context of a reasonably coherent storyline that didn’t always feel as if it was simply marking time between the elaborate set-pieces. With “The Fall,” Singh has clearly outdone himself in regards to the visual side--having shot the film over the course of three years in more than 18 different countries, he and cinematographer Colin Watkinson (who previously worked on the visual effects for the dazzling 1995 fantasy “The City of Lost Children”) have come up with sights so bold and astounding that I hesitate to even attempt to describe any of them since there are no words that could fully do justice to what they have accomplished--but he seems to have actually regressed in regards to narrative. There is very little drama going on here (certainly not enough to justify the two-hour running time), too many plot notions (such as Alexandria’s tendency to see the fantastic in the ordinary--an X-ray technician is transformed into some hooded monster and the friendship between her and sweet-natured nun Justine Waddell) are introduced and then abandoned, the central relationship between the Alexandria and Roy never feels particularly believable and the despair faced by the latter is never really explained or developed in a believable or coherent manner. As for the story-within-the-story, the best thing that I can say about it is that it really does come across as the fever dream of a critically injured depressive with a head filled with morphine and a diminishing will to live. (To be fair, however, I did love the part where Charles Darwin’s pet monkey. . .yes, Charles Darwin’s pet monkey. . .is shockingly killed in a battle and a grief-stricken Darwin rationalizes the tragedy by admitting that “it was the natural order of things.”)

Another problem with the film--one that grows more irritating as its progresses--is the central performance of Catinca Untaru as Alexandria and how Singh deploys it throughout. Now I know full well that when it comes to young performers, especially ones like her who have never acted before, what we are usually watching is the end result of a lot of footage of a kid being a kid that has been boiled down in the editing room by the director into something resembling a consistent performance. While Untaru is an undeniably engaging presence, Singh hasn’t figured out a way of wrenching that presence into a believable character--she veers wildly from scene to scene between coming across as a normal and unassuming child and a polished-up professional and there are numerous moments throughout where the changes come so rapidly that we get the sense that Singh is standing just outside the frame coaching her to get the response that he wants. These moments add jarring notes to the proceedings and, more often than not, they wind up pulling us out of the story at exactly the points when we need to be fully enraptured by it if it is to succeed at all.

Over the years, there have been any number of attempts by filmmakers to stage elaborate cinematic fairy tales that aren’t aimed specifically at the toddler market, including such excellent-but-underrated works as “Labyrinth,” “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Mirrormask,” “Tideland” and “Stardust.” These films all had moments of extraordinary visual beauty, to be sure, but they also told compelling stories as well. “The Fall” has the first part of that equation down pat to the point where I can see myself picking up the DVD somewhere down the line just to once again check some of its amazing individual moments. If Tarsem Singh had only lavished a sliver of his attention to the visual detail to the simple matter of creating an engaging tale to service those visions, he might have created the truly amazing work that he seems capable of delivering instead of the gorgeous mess that he has once again presented us with.

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