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The Fall

By our man with the DVD player and no social life, Philip Reeve.

It's always depressing when film critics complain that a movie is all style over substance, as they did with Avatar at the end of last year - stunning visually, of course, but oh, my dears, the story...  I think it's worth remembering that the movies started out as fairground attractions: visual roller-coaster rides which appealed straight to the subconscious.  It was only later that they began to be considered as art and expected to tell complex and original stories too.  And while complex and original stories are all well and good,  I'm still happy to settle down and watch pure spectacle sometimes.  The problem is, it's rare these days to find pure spectacle that doesn't look like the rough draft for a computer game and hasn't been done a thousand times before.

So how wonderful to find a film that looks both utterly beautiful and not quite like anything else I've ever seen.  Like all the films I really like it's basically barking mad, and it tells a pretty engaging story into the bargain.

I don't get to the cinema much these days, and have little idea what films are around, but the fact that I'd never heard of The Fall (2006) suggests to me that it didn't do particularly well on its release (apologies if I'm wrong and this the umpteenth review of it you've read).  It was directed by 'Tarsem' whom a quick Wikipedia search reveals to be Tarsem Singh,  a director of commercials and pop videos, who funded much of this extraordinary epic from his own pocket - a pocket which must be extraordinarily deep, since this is one of the most spectacular films I've seen in a long while (and as far as I could tell it was all real, not CGI).

It starts in the early days of Hollywood, where five-year-old Alexandria is confined to hospital with a broken arm.  (She's played by Cantica Untaru, who is chubbier than the average child star, has no front teeth, speaks broken English that is sometimes hard to catch, and spends the whole movie with her arm raised at a peculiar angle in its plaster cast.  Tarsem gets a marvellous performance out of her; funny, touching, completely natural.)  Whilst wandering around the wards she befriends a young stuntman, Roy, who has been injured jumping from a bridge in his first movie.  He starts to tell her an epic story about a gang of bandits (which includes Charles Darwin and his pet monkey, Wallace) who have sworn revenge on the odious Governor Odious, and as he tells it the film takes flight, leaving the dim, shady hospital rooms behind and soaring off into a fantasy which seems part childish imagination (the characters are played by the people Alexandria knows around the hospital; the villain's henchmen wear armour extrapolated from the leather helmet and apron of the radiographer) and part deranged fashion shoot.  The story itself is about as basic as a fantasy tale can get, but oh, the visuals!  It's shot on location everywhere; a butterfly-shaped reef in Fiji, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Hagia Sophia, the Pyramids, Jodphur, Ladakh, Namibia, Prague, Rome...  And beautifully shot, too, with every frame composed and lit like a high-end advert by the Planet Earth Tourist Board.  The burning tree!  The underwater elephants wading through those blizzards of silver fish!  The red palanquin being hauled by an army of slaves across a bone-white desert!  And, every now and again, the necessary return to the hospital, where a darker and more complicated story unfolds, and where the beauty is more subtle (there is a wonderful shot of a brazier burning in an orange grove at twilight, the firelight glowing through the circular holes in its side rhyming with the fallen fruit scattered on the grass around it).

A couple of times I thought I detected a reference to Zhang Yimou's Hero (World Heritage Sites + cast of thousands = wowness).  Otherwise, it's hard to say what other films The Fall could be likened to.  It's a bit like a not-crap version of Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen with much better photography and none of the weak sub-Python comedy turns.  It's a bit like something Peter Greenaway might have made if his target demographic went to the Odeon instead of the ICA.  But I suspect US movie-maven Roger Ebert had it about right when he wrote, "You might want to see it for no other reason than that it exists.  There will never be another like it."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"rough draft for a computer game" OH NO YOU DI'NT

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