Tarsem Singh has won awards on two continents for commercials he directed through Radical Media, and as a director of music videos he won Best Video of the Year at the 1991 MTV awards for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." While his first feature film, "The Cell" (2000), was panned as being little more than a protracted music video, the buzz around "The Fall" was like a summer's evening saturated with cidadas.
"The Fall" debuted at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and saw a limited theatrical release in the U.S. after winning special mention at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival. It's the kind of labor-of-love that usually makes me get right behind a project like this--shot on 26 locations in 18 countries and filmed with an international cast that couldn't always communicate with each other. It was a dream pursued over four years and financed largely out-of-pocket. As with Singh's other work, "The Fall" is ripe and bursting with rich, vibrant colors, epic-style shots, and a slightly surreal landscape that intrudes on reality. Like "The Princess Bride" (1987) it's a story within a story that's told from an adult to an at-first reluctant youngster, with the relationship between the two serving as a subtle side plot. But like that other frame tale, "Big Fish" (2003), the content of the stories is more fantastic and, yes, surreal (there's that word again), but not in a Salvador Dali dripping clock sort of way. Singh's surrealism reinforces the exotica, rather than fragmentizing the images or our associations with them. We're not invited to rethink reality as much as we are to accept this vision of the surreal as a visual stimulant, a panacea of sorts.
I loved the fairytale humor of "The Princess Bride," and I loved the sleuthing portrait of a father that emerged from the surreal segments of "Big Fish." So why didn't I respond as well to "The Fall"?
In fiction workshops, when all but one person thinks the same about a work, everyone shrugs off that person's criticisms as being a "quirky reading." Well, readers, I'll warn you that what I'm about to offer here is probably one of those quirky readings. I know full well that critics have praised this film; I just can't bring myself to join the chorus.
Yes, it's visually stunning, and in Blu-ray it practically leaps off the screen. But too much of the film didn't move me emotionally, and I found myself thinking that the "invented" portion was more narrative than story. Things happened, one after the other, but not with enough dramatic force and not with the same episodic cliff-hanging regularity or with the same sense of purpose as in "The Princess Bride." And the sum of the images themselves wasn't greater than the parts, as was the case with "Big Fish." I just figure that something is wrong when, instead of getting caught up in the exotic Technicolor fantasy narrative, you can't wait to get back to scenes that show the two principal characters interacting in drab "reality."
Set in the Twenties, "The Fall" opens with a black-and-white shot of a film crew in action, hoisting a horse from a 40-foot drop into a river where two men tread water, waiting to be thrown ropes. After that heavily symbolic opening, the scene shifts to a hospital near Los Angeles, where a laid-up stuntman named Roy Walker (Lee Pace) has no feeling in his legs. While lying in bed he notices a curious but shy little girl who has one arm in a cast. He learns that she's Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), and that she has a story of her own. At first we believe that he's telling a fantastic story to help her get her mind off of her own pain, both physical and emotional. But as the narrative unfolds, it turns out that he is also hoping that by getting close to this ambulatory little girl he can convince her to secretly take drugs from the hospital's pharmacy. Why? Because Roy doesn't want to continue living this way.
Well, I'm not about to tell anyone too much about a plot and ruin it, except to say that there's a disproportionate emphasis on the fantastic stories he tells the little girl--so much so that I personally felt it intruded on the real story, like a tedious digression that makes us want to skip to the "good parts." It becomes more interesting when reality intrudes on the story Roy tells, and real people (such as a nurse, played by Justine Waddell) end up in the story, or else the story changes to fit Roy's moods and mounting desperation. But there were a number of times where I was honestly tempted to fast-forward--a sin for movie lovers.
I just wasn't enthralled by the made-up tale of a group of would-be heroes who are determined to bring down Governor Odious (cute name, huh?), who's played by Daniel Caltagirone. Not exactly superheroes, their group is comprised of a mixture of experts and grudge holders. There's an Indian (Jeetu Verma), a former slave (Marcus Wesley), an explosives expert (Robin Smith), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), a mystic (Julian Bleach), and the infamous Blue Bandit (Emil Hostina/Pace). In truth, I couldn't buy the presence of a recognizable historical figure like Darwin as readily as I could accept Chaucer in "A Knight's Tale." It just felt a little off-kilter. Likewise, the Blue Bandit doesn't come close to the Dread Pirate Roberts, and the tale that Singh spins with fellow writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis just doesn't have the same charm or magic as "The Princess Bride." The exploits of these heroes struck me as more tedious than entertaining. The second half is stronger than the first, but those yarn-spinning departures just went on too long and didn't compel me as much as I thought they should have. In this, I realize I'm in the minority, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. "The Fall" is more visually than emotionally stimulating, and despite having a star named Pace the film suffers from interminably slow pacing and slack editing. The film comes in at under two hours, but it really felt longer to me, which is never a good sign.
Visually, though, it's stunning in 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec). Colors are brilliant, edges are sharp, there's a pleasing 3-dimensionality, and black levels are incredible. The level of detail will astound you. This is what Hi-Def is all about. The transfer to a BD-50 is clean, with the exception of a few squiggles in a few scenes that appear to be the result of artifacting. But the moment passes in an instant and then it's back to astounding clarity. "The Fall" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a lively and full-bodied English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. As with the video it's a pristine audio that brings out the best in lows, mids, and highs and features a dynamic timbre that's especially noticeable during action scenes. But the quiet moments are crisp and clean as well. I don't have a single complaint about the audio. It's one of the strongest and best modulated audio transfers I've reviewed lately.
The best commentaries make you want to change your mind about a film, and the unassuming Singh almost convinces me, except that his remarks tend to be as rambling as the narrative, and he's preaching to the choir insomuch as he concentrates on the visuals that have been such a large part of his directing. A second commentary by the co-writers provides more discussion about the areas that disturbed me, but neither said anything to make me think differently. The commentaries are average to slightly above-average in terms of their content. Some people grate on you as they talk about the film, but none of the participants do here, and they're pleasant enough to listen to.
In this ark of bonus features there's also a pair of 30-minute documentaries, one of them a behind-the-scenes look at filming, and the other focusing more on the cast. Both are decent, especially the one that shows the director interacting with his cast. Rounding out the extras are two deleted scenes that run just two minutes.
"The Fall" is visually stunning, but the fantastic narration wasn't nearly engaging enough. And that's a pretty large chunk of the movie to disappoint.