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Friday, Sept. 12, 2008
Child of the pure, unclouded brow and dreaming eyes of wonder
Director Tarsem Singh has been blessed with a successful career in commercials, but when it comes to the cinema, he's suffered the curse of bad timing. His debut feature, "The Cell" (2000), came out as the serial killer boom was starting to tank. His new film, "The Fall," is told through the eyes of a preteen girl, with a story that shifts boldly between gaudy fantasy and dark reality.
That probably sounds a bit like Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (2007), or even Terry Gilliams "Tideland" (2006), but Tarsem is no imitator; "The Fall" actually wrapped in 2006 before Gilliam's film, but it's only now finding distribution. Such a gap would seem to indicate that the film is either too "out there" or just too awful to find a market; neither is the case. It took directors Spike Jonze and David Fincher to sign on as executive producers to get the film in theaters, but you've got to wonder what the problem was.
I suspect it's the gap between Tarsem's promise and his delivery; you look at the film, and shot after shot screams genius, whether it's an Escher-like stairwell to infinity filled with scurrying black figures, or shimmering, mirage-like landscapes that you'll swear are CGI, but aren't. Yet wed to this is clunky dialogue, a certain twee aspect to the fantasy, and Eiko Ishioka costumes that, however striking, make the characters seem like a bunch of gay ravers.
It's an idiosyncratic film, but one that takes risks and is worth loving a bit for that reason alone. And the common wisdom on Tarsem — that he's brilliant with visuals, less so with actors — is certainly not true here. The relationship between the two characters at the center of the film — an injured movie stuntman and a 5-year-old girl, both recovering in the same hospital — is wonderfully developed, with two performances so natural and unforced, they barely seem like acting.
Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is a silent movie-era stuntman, paralyzed after a fall from a railroad bridge, while Alexandria (Catrinca Untaru) is the little girl with the broken arm who befriends him. Roy coaxes the girl to his bedside, and begins to tell her stories, stories that Tarsem puts up on screen as Alex would imagine them. There's a small band of adventurers — an escaped slave, an Indian, an engineer, a bandit, and, oddly enough, Charles Darwin — all on a quest for revenge against the evil governor Odious and his faceless minions. In the fine old tradition of "The Wizard of Oz," all the characters in Alex's fantasy world are played by the same actors as those playing the people in the hospital, and fantasy and reality seem to bleed into each other.
At first we think Roy's just lonely for company, or charmed by his little friend, but he turns out to have ulterior motives. Desperately depressed — not only did he lose his legs, but he also lost his lover to the film's leading man — Roy is trying to manipulate Alex into stealing some pills for him. With these, he plans to overdose and end his life. We feel for the guy, but it's a terrible thing to do to a kid, and sure enough his actions do bear consequences.
The fantasy sequences look incredible. Tarsem handpicked selected locations from across the planet, including Namibian deserts, the "Blue City" of Jodhpur and an Istanbul mosque full of whirling dervishes, but the story lacks drive, possibly because it's only a reflection of Roy and Alex's reality. It feels like the meanderings of Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo," but without the trippy, spiritual allegory that made it a cult classic.
More successful are the scenes between Roy and Alex, which are surprisingly touching. Untaru, who's never acted before and barely speaks English (she's Romanian), brings an awkward hesitancy to her lines that's endearingly real. As she bounces on Roy's bed, giggling at his stories or terrified by his darker moods, we literally see a bond grow between the two.
The power of storytelling — as escape, as seduction, as allegory — is explored as the two while away their cloistered hours in the dark hospital rooms. When death lies so close, fantasy becomes almost talismanic in its ability to take us away from a reality — sickness, disease — that threatens to drag us down with it. Tarsem's film will go down with Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen" as one of the more quixotic films to take us back to those childhood fables that kept the darkness away.