The Fall

| June 2, 2008

Eight years ago, director Tarsem’s The Cell was released. It was his first feature, and while it was visually fascinating, it failed because of a poor script and some bad casting decisions (Jennifer Lopez as a child psychiatrist? Really?). Apparently stung by the mixed to poor reviews, Tarsem returned to his work as a commercial and music video director. It seemed that he would forever be primarily known as the director of R.E.M.’s excessively pretentious “Losing My Religion” video. That’s why The Fall is such a pleasant surprise. He has learned from the mistakes of his first film and turned in a lovely piece of pure cinema that marries a compelling story and two great performances with his lush visual style.
Set in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920’s, the film introduces us to Alexandria (newcomer Catinca Untaru), a little girl who has immigrated to America from Eastern Europe. Confined to the hospital because of a broken arm, she wanders through the building out of boredom. One day she ventures into a wing of the hospital where Roy (Lee Pace, TV’s Pushing Daisies) is being treated. Roy is an actor/stuntman who is nursing not only a broken heart but also a broken back as the result of a dangerous stunt that went awry. Just as bored and lonely as Alexandria, Roy strikes up a friendship with the little girl and tells her a story in exchange for her agreement to steal morphine for him from the pharmacy.
The tale that Roy spins is the stuff of classic pulp novels. Using characters from his imagination and fictionalized versions of real-life figures like Charles Darwin (Leo Bill, 28 Days Later…), he creates an adventure of love and revenge that spans several countries. Even though he realizes just how ridiculous the story is and fills it with moments of self-aware humor, Alexandria is completely enthralled. And while it is Roy’s tale, it’s through Alexandria’s imagination that it takes a visual form in the film.
While the eye-popping colors and exotic locations of the elaborate tale are obviously where Tarsem feels most comfortable, the emotional center of the story remains in the hospital with Alexandria and Roy. As more details about Roy’s fragile and desperate state of mind are revealed, he takes the tale to dark places that frighten and upset Alexandria. It’s not until his self-pity and anger result in near-tragedy that he realizes just how important his story has become to the equally fragile little girl, who is still dealing with a death in her family. It’s at this point that she forces Roy to reconcile his need to feel sorry for himself with her need for a happy ending, one which only he can give her through his control as the storyteller.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is how much of its success is due to the performances of Pace and Untaru. It may be Tarsem’s visual extravagance that brings people in, but it’s the relationship of his two leads that the audience will remember. Pace manages to come across as pathetic, vindictive and manipulative without losing sympathy from the audience because of his vulnerability and honest affection for a little girl who is as much of an outsider as he is. Untaru is the anti-Dakota Fanning. She’s not the most photogenic child actress and she’s definitely not polished, which is what’s great about her. She’s completely unaffected by the camera or the expectations of what a child actor’s performance should be like. She gives a completely natural performance that could easily be chalked up to her inexperience and her struggles with the English language, but that doesn’t matter. What comes across on the screen is a child who reacts with honest emotions to everything thrown at her. Even if the rest of the film had failed, her performance is a breath of fresh air that would still be worth seeing.
While most of the film works, the slightly ambiguous ending is a little too flat for the emotional build-up that preceded it. But even with this slight letdown, this is a great change of pace from the lumbering blockbusters clogging up the theaters. If you’re in the mood for a visually arresting film that manages to maintain a true emotional core, this is a worthy piece of work to seek out.

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