The Fall

Stephen Berkman/Roadside Attractions
Tarsem/India-United Kingdom-United States 2008

A film to divide opinion if ever there was one, The Fall is stuffed to the brim with wondrous landscapes, staggering architecture and fantastical locations – all supposedly genuine and CGI-free. Apparently based on a Bulgarian movie from 1981, it starts off as a sweet fable told to a kid, and gets progressively darker and richer until – if you manage to keep cynicism at arm’s length successfully – it might even be moving. And all this from the director of 2000’s The Cell, a film of such complete rottenness that I actually came out of it less interested in movies than when I went in.

In a 1920s Hollywood hospital, movie stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) is laid up with a serious back injury after a stunt goes wrong. He starts telling a story to another patient, a 10-year-old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). It’s a stirring tale of five mythical heroes, along with pirates and brigands and warriors and a princess and love and loss, and figures from the hospital and real life turn up as the characters. But Roy is deeply unhappy and his thoughts are turning suicidal, which affects his frame of mind, his story and his young friend’s life as well.

There are clear comparisons possible here to The Princess Bride, but they’re way off the mark; this is less whimsical, much more powerful and motors along at about five times the velocity. Above all, it has chubby faced, stoic, gurgling, unflappable, ten-year-old Romanian show-stopper Untaru, whose performance is so open and un-actorly that for once I don’t even want to know where Tarsem found her. Untaru’s fractured, giggling delivery is so funny and utterly charming that you’d have to be made of stone not to empathize, and stapled to your seat not to lurch towards the screen when something horrid happens to her in the medicines store room.

It’s the contrast between the humanity of Roy and Alexandria’s shared distress and the vast super-saturated visuals that Tarsem’s found spread around 18 different countries which lifts The Fall onto a storytelling plane you don’t see attempted very often. True, the other characters are defined more by Eiko Ishioka’s costumes than anything they actually do, but it’s churlish to complain about that when those costumes are so stunning. Justine Waddell, as the story’s princess, gets to wear a headdress shaped like a flower bud with a half-face mask that splits to frame her head like a butterfly. She must have thought it was Christmas.

And then, right at the end, just when you think you’ve seen all The Fall’s surprises, Tarsem pulls a final one from the hat. With Beethoven’s 7th rising on the soundtrack, there’s a montage of silent films and a baby-talk voice over from Alexandria talking about her love of seeing Roy on screen and of the old movies he’s in, and the effect is to inject one final glorious element: love of movies. After all the levels of storytelling already seen in the film, Tarsem joins the two bare wires, making parallels between what the characters are doing, what he’s doing as a director, and what we’re doing sat in the cinema. It’s a heady, emotional rush of an ending, punctuated by a giggling Romanian engaged in a wrestling match with the English language saying, “I hope you like my story bye.” Perfect.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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