When Tarsem Singh's The Cell was released in 2000, I spent most of my review talking about the way it looked, from the cinematography to the costume design. Eight years later, Tarsem (he's just going by his first name now) has finally made his second film, and it looks like my review of it might be structured the same way.
And why shouldn't it be? The films have a lot in common, both set primarily inside someone's mind, and the new one is only two letters away: It's called The Fall. (Suggested future titles for Tarsem movies: The Bull, The Mill, and The Doll.) The Fall is much lighter fare than the unsettling Cell was, though not without its dark moments, and if its imaginative story isn't exactly brilliant, I'm not concerned. I would be content to merely look at the film all day.
And I like the story, too. It's set in about 1915 at a hospital in Los Angeles, where a despondent stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace) is recovering from a mishap that has left him unable to walk. Scampering around the hospital grounds is Alexandria (Carinca Untaru), a mischievous little girl with a broken arm. She speaks with what sounds to me like an Indian accent, though the actress is Romanian. She meanders into Roy's room one day, and Roy, upon hearing her name, tells her about Alexander the Great. She is so entranced by his yarn-spinning that she wants to hear another. Roy obliges.
This time, he uses details from his own life and from Alexandria's to weave a tale of old-fashioned adventure, something Robert Louis Stevenson might have written if he'd been a casual LSD user. The story, grandly played out before our eyes with minor characters from Roy's world appearing as its characters, is about a band of five men from all over the globe who are united by their hatred of an evil man named Governor Odious, upon whom each has sworn to have his vengeance. They are: a former slave (Marcus Wesley), an Indian man (Jeetu Verma), an Italian explosives expert (Robin Smith), a masked bandit who stands in for Roy himself, and, um, Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), accompanied by a monkey that gives him advice from within the satchel in which he is carried. (Well, why not?)
The five revenge-seekers, each wearing costumes of a different predominant color, travel the world to reach Gov. Odious, guided at one point by a babbling mystic warrior (Julian Bleach) who comes out of a burning tree. (Again, why not?) The masked bandit's beef with Odious is that Odious killed his brother. In real life, the Odious figure stole Roy's girlfriend, which hints at the cause of Roy's despondency. [Thanks to the commenter below for correcting me on some of this.] It also ties in with why, in the hospital scenes that are interspersed with the storytelling, he wants Alexandria to fetch him some morphine. A lot of it.
The screenplay is credited to Tarsem, regular producing partner Nico Soultanakis, and Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money), and it was apparently inspired by a 1981 Bulgarian film called Yo Ho Ho, though not in any official, credit-giving, copyright-securing kind of way. Whatever the source, Tarsem and his crew have executed the story in dazzling fashion. Elaborate sets were constructed in 18 different countries (no computer-generated backgrounds are used), and photography was done over the course of a few years. Tarsem's shot compositions are artful, his camera movements graceful, and Colin Watkinson's cinematography is extraordinarily vibrant.
Like The Cell, the visuals are more compelling than the content, but I don't have anything against the content, either. The interaction between Lee Pace and young Carinca Untaru is wonderfully charming, the latter giving a performance that's totally unaffected and natural, and the film's theme -- that we are the protagonists in our own stories and can choose our own destinies -- is nicely rendered.
Does the fantasy story go a bit off the rails at times? Yes, but I think that's part of the fun. (After debuting at Toronto in 2006, the film languished until Spike Jonze and David Fincher championed it -- so that should give you an idea of its oddness.) It's such an exotic, fanciful story, so loony and imaginative and outre -- believe me, my summary barely scratches the surface of all the tale's kooky details and locations -- that the crazier it gets, the more intrigued I am. It's rare that a film sweeps you into its world as fully as The Fall does. I can't wait to see what Tarsem comes up with next.
Note: The film's R rating is absurd, especially in light of the recent PG rating for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. The Fall's violence is no more plentiful or graphic than Caspian's, and neither film has any sex or profanity. Both should have been rated PG-13. I defy any member of the MPAA ratings board to stand up and say otherwise and keep a straight face.