If you admired the visual splendor and narrative recklessness of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen but wish that it had had more emotional substance, then The Fall is for you. It also features an unreliable narrator telling implausible fairy-tale adventures, which are brought to spectacular life, but this time the storytelling motivations are more obvious and more troubling.
Writer/director Tarsem--the India-born, California-raised music-video director who directed but didn't write 2000's awful The Cell--loosely adapted his Fall screenplay from the 1981 Bulgarian movie Yo Ho Ho. In a Southern California hospital just after World War I, a silent-film stunt man named Roy (Lee Pace) is recovering from an on-set fall from a railroad bridge, a tumble that cost him his leg, his girlfriend, and the will to live.
Roy's only friend in the hospital is Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a pudgy 5-year-old Romanian immigrant who fell from an orange tree when her family was picking fruit as migrant workers. At first it appears that Roy is telling his fantastical story about the evil Governor Odious and his five heroic enemies just to keep a little girl entertained. And who wouldn't be spellbound by a story that provides visions of an elephant swimming through a coral reef, of Charles Darwin in a red-feather coat conversing with his pet monkey Wallace, of a dreadlocked mystic crawling out of a burning tree, of whirling dervishes spinning on every floor of an Islamic palace, of arrows flying through the sky over an all-blue city?
But when Roy refuses to relate the next installment of the suspenseful tale until his young listener steals a bottle of morphine tablets from the hospital dispensary, the movie takes a dark turn.You notice that the characters in the fantasy are played by people the little girl knows in real life, including Roy as the French bandit behind the red mask and gold brocade. You notice that the story within the movie is far-fetched precisely because it changes with every shift in Roy's mood as he wavers between recovery and despair. And when Alexandria enters the fantasy as the French bandit's sidekick and pleads with the heroes not to surrender, the connections between fantasy and reality are as coherent as they are compelling.
The Fall debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006 but wasn't picked up for distribution until this year. The delay fed rumors that the picture was an incomprehensible mess or a superficial self-indulgence, but nothing could be further from the truth. The sight of the French bandit and his four allies battling hordes of black-masked assassins in an M.C. Escher-like castle may be dazzling, but the image of a 5-year-old girl with an arm cast scrambling up a precarious set of medicine shelves proves heartbreaking.