That the acclaimed music-video and commercial director Tarsem Singh managed to make The Fall on his own terms—he shot the self-financed film in 18 countries over a four-year period—merits a prize for perseverance, if nothing else. The movie may be the first indie spectacle, the traditional cast of thousands replaced with resplendent cinematography and a few well-staged action scenes executed with limited CGI, appropriate in a film inspired by the daredevil doubles of early Hollywood.
Set in a hospital in Los Angeles in 1915, The Fall refers to the circumstances of its unlikely leads, stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) and five-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). Roy has lost the use of his legs after an accident while making a western. Alexandria, a refugee from India, has broken her arm picking oranges in the grove where her family works. To pass the time as they recuperate, Roy tells Alexandria tall tales starring the Black Bandit (think Zorro crossed with Sgt. Pepper) and his posse, a curious crew of real and imagined characters like Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), a flamboyant naturalist in faux ostrich coat accompanied by a pet monkey learned in lepidopterology.
Such innocent storytelling shadows a sinister motive, however. Despondent over his love life more than his injury—he’s been dumped by his actress girlfriend for her leading man—Roy coaxes Alexandria to swipe morphine from the hospital pharmacy so he can commit suicide.
The Fall is foremost a visual tour de force, a triumph of location scouting that mix-and-matches exotic landscapes with fantastical architecture in Bali, Dubai, Brazil, China, Spain, South Africa and other Travel Channel destinations. (Production designer Ged Clarke’s greatest accomplishment, paradoxically, is his one true stage set, the turn-of-the-century Los Angeles hospital, stylishly realized.) Tarsem (who like Sting, Cher and Bono requires no surname) is unconstrained by notions such as continuity, since Roy unravels his narrative in fits and starts, changing his characters to suit his mood or Alexandria’s whims. When he invents an Indian sidekick (Jeetu Verma) for the Black Bandit, Alexandria imagines him as a turbaned Kshatriya warrior wielding a scimitar rather than a feathered Apache with bow and arrow. Are our heroes trapped on a deserted island with no prospect for rescue or escape? Enter a swimming elephant to ferry them to the mainland. And why not a mud-dabbled, dreadlocked mystic who speaks in tongues (Julian Bleach) when we need a dharma bum to the rescue?
Most of the cast play dual roles: Doctors, nurses, patients and visitors reappear as paladins and princesses. The man who delivers ice to the hospital (Marcus Wesley) is transformed into Otta Benga, a freed slave devoted to righting injustice. (The real Ota Benga, for those interested in such allusions, was a Congolese pygmy briefly exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in 1906 before committing suicide a decade later.) A one-legged stunt man (Robin Smith) visiting Roy doubles as Luigi, the mad munitions expert; a self-satisfied matinee idol (Daniel Caltagirone) morphs into the evil Gov. Odious; a sweet but randy nurse (Justine Waddell) transforms into the glamorous Princess Evelyn.
Tarsem borrowed the film’s bifurcated structure, and its plot generally, from the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho, although the BBC’s 1986 miniseries The Singing Detective (remade in the U.S. as a feature film in 2003) makes a more familiar comparison. His characters don’t break into lip-synched song and dance, but their fever dreams, haunted memories and altered states of consciousness dictate the direction of The Fall’s stories-within-stories, just as Dennis Potter’s eponymous hero hallucinated about his childhood and novel-in-progress as he lay suffering in a London ward. Tarsem directs his fantasia with a lighter, mischievous touch, however, and makes the most of Pace’s boyish charm and Untaru’s untutored innocence—until three-quarters into the movie, when events take a dark turn and Roy becomes inexplicably cruel and uncomfortably maudlin. The Fall is meant to celebrate the restorative power of imagination, but it leaves viewers burdened with a sense of despair and impending doom.