Watching Tarsem Singh's one-of-a-kind movie The Fall, I am reminded of my reaction to the film version of The World According to Garp when it appeared in 1984. I had been teaching John Irving's novel in my literature classes and knew the book quite well. The title character in my head didn't look at all like Robin Williams, and Garp's wife Helen, as I imagined her, didn't resemble Mary Beth Hurt. I've had similar responses on other occasions to filmed versions of favorite books. And that concept " our separate visualization " is a theme Singh employs to delightful effect in The Fall. Written by Singh with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, The Fall is the story of an unlikely friendship and a devastating betrayal. Set in a California hospital circa 1915, The Fall depicts an act of kindness that segues into an instance of cruel manipulation. Roy Walker (Lee Pace) has been working in the silent film industry as a stuntman. After hurting himself severely when he jumped from a train trestle and losing his girlfriend to the picture's star, he lies suffering and morose in a vast and mostly empty recovery ward. By chance, Roy meets a fellow patient, 5-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has broken an arm falling from a tree while she was picking fruit. Roy takes pity on the cherubic Alexandria and offers to tell her a story.
Roy means his tale to be a revenge allegory about his own miserable life. He casts the star of his movie (Daniel Caltagirone) as the evil Governor Odious and his unfaithful girlfriend (Karen Haacke) as an unfaithful princess, both of whom are in need of some serious capital punishment. Odious and the princess will be brought to justice by a sensational sevensome: the masked Black Bandit (Emil Hostina), the Italian explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), the escaped slave Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), the Indian (Jeetmu Verma) and his wife (Ayesha Verman), and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his monkey (Wallace).
Much of the film's fun takes place as the story takes flight. We briefly see Roy's characters from his own point of view. But in a flash we begin to see them completely differently through Alexandria's eyes as she puts the faces of figures from the hospital onto Roy's creations. Roy himself becomes the Black Bandit. The Indians are no longer from the American plains but are now dressed in the sorts of robes and turbans worn by dwellers along the Ganges. And the princess, now wearing the face of a kind nurse (Justine Waddell), is someone not to be punished but saved.
After this engaging setup, the film's middle portion is not as successful, at least not in narrative terms. Singh seems less interested in designing a cohesive and suspenseful adventure story for Roy to relate and Alexandria to envision than he is in capturing arresting backdrops for his action. (Reportedly he traveled to 28 different countries over four years filming these fantasy sequences.) But what The Fall fails to deliver in terms of narrative, it more than makes up for in visual splendor. One lush, vivid landscape after another entrances the eye the way great paintings do. The story lacks force at its midpoint, but we are sustained by the visual bounty.
The Fall regains its narrative grip when Roy does something utterly despicable. Wallowing in self-pity and capitalizing on Alexandria's innocence and fondness for him, he sends her to get a bottle of morphine pills with which he intends to commit suicide. The closing interactions between adult and child are excruciating and have all the tension the middle section of the picture lacked.
Fascinating elements populate every corner of this film. Though Alexandria's family members work as migrant fruit pickers, they are not, as we first assume, Mexican or Central American; her mother and sister wear headscarves, so they are, perhaps, Muslims. Odious' henchmen extract information from allies of the Black Bandit by using torture. And Luigi is able to bring down many of the evil governor's soldiers by becoming a suicide bomber. I am not sure that one can distill a clear message from these apparent references to current struggles between East and West, but they are fascinating.
I won't pretend to understand what The Fall means, or even to assert that it possesses conventional meaning at every turn. Moreover, I concede that the film won't appeal to every viewer. But folks like me will love it.
- Marcus Wesley as escaped slave Otto Benga in Tarsem Singh's visually stunning The Fall.