The Fall (2008,USA)
Director: Tarsem Singh Starring: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell
Tarsem Singh (or simply “Tarsem” as he seems to want to be known in a slightly grating way in the credits) debuted in 2000 with the seriously underwhelming but visually striking The Cell. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but I remember a confused and slightly flat psychological thriller in glossy wrapping. The casting of J-Lo in a lead role probably didn’t help. Fast forward nearly a decade and his second film, The Fall, is being released under the banner of “David Fincher and Spike Jonze present…”. High praise indeed and certainly a reason to give him a second chance, even if you have reservations over the use of “presents” credits which, like vanity record labels started by successfull bands, can be a bit of a minefield when it comes to the quality of the attendant film.
Set in a hospital in Los Angeles in the 1920’s it brings together an injured movie stuntman Roy (Pace) and a five year old girl called Alexandria (Untaru) when a twist of fate causes their paths to cross. Roy tells Alexandria an epic tale about five heroes bent on revenge against a tyrannical overlord. As his yarn unfolds it becomes clear that there are ulterior motives to the telling of the tale and that both the narrator and his sole audience member are using the tale as a means to deal with their own personal demons.
It’s a charming and rather tragic tale. Both Roy and Alexandria harbour a darkness that clearly neither has dealt with and the performances from the leads are pivotal in expressing this. Cantinca Untaru is phenomenal as Alexandria. This is no ultra-polished, stage school veneered, Dakota Fanning style performance. She brings a genuine childishness to the role and Tarsem has made the right decision in allowing her natural five-year oldness (for want of a better way) to drive her role. Often interrupting Roy with questions and that sort of pragmatism that only very young children, as yet uncorrupted by the cliches and conventions we are familiar with by adulthood possess, she is charming, amusing and a delight. When her scenes take a darker turn she is just as good, expressing her fears and vulnerability with utter conviction.
Lee Pace’s portrayal of Roy is just as good. His almost schizophrenic character, equally charming and conniving, his desperation at his plight and his obvious affection for his new friend are all wonderfully realized. The relationship between Roy and Alexandria, critical to the film’s success, is steeped in authenticity. The supporting cast are also great and I was surprised (pleasantly) to see Shameless star Sean Gilder in a small but important role. The heroes of the tall tale have clearly been cast for their physicality but can handle their sparse dialogue scenes too.
The film’s real strength is in the realisation of the storytelling. Using Roy’s narration, the images are clearly those of Alexandria’s imagination leading to some interesting inerpretations of the details of the tale. In a nod to The Wizard Of Oz, the characters in the story are based on the staff and patients in the hospital, not the only detail to be informed by Alexandria’s perception and experience of the world. These imagination scenes, following a similar structure (if a somewhat less overtly comedic one) to the likes of The Princess Bride, are absolutely stunningly beautiful. Whoever scouted the locations that comprise the fantasy kingdom of Alexandria’s imagination deserves a medal. The action flows seamlessly from exquisite location to exquisite location, ancient temples dissolving into deserts, botanic gardens becoming deserted reefs in some of the most impressive transitions I’ve ever seen in cinema. It is indisputably gorgeous, especially on this blu ray version. These are in sharp contrast to the dark, dusty hospital scenes which are still wonderful to behold despite their apparent dreariness. My cap is well and truly doffed to cinematographer Colin Watkinson for the magnificent job he has done here.
In the end, Fincher and Jonze were right to give this film their support. The fact that it’s not better known is frankly criminal but not much of a surprise given its unconventional approach. It really is worth watching though. At first glance you may feel the urge to write it off as an exercise in style over substance but there is much more here. The spectacular visuals are built on an emotional foundation that drives a story with the power to charm and shock in equal measure. Get it watched.