When I call The Fall, by Tarsem Singh, a fairy tale or a fantasy, I mean that it is this aesthetic, and this story telling mode that propels this masterpiece of a film, not that it should in any way be taken as a lightweight tale for children. In fact, with it's R rating, The Fall, deals with themes and shows vivid imagery that can be troubling or graphic even for some adults. It is a fantasy because it is driven by fantasy and imagination on every level. The story is of one narrative, that of of how a stunt actor, Roy, (Lee Pace), in the face of shattered legs, and dreams of stardom and love, turns his imagination towards creating a second narrative, fueled by his new fantasy of suicide. He tells a tale of an epic journey to a young patient of the same hospital, and in her imagination, the story becomes sprawling landscapes and rich costumes that the film shows the viewer in stunning color. Even the creation of the movie is driven by fantasy. The project, called a "vanity project" on the part of Tarsem Singh by Variety, was filled over four years and across seven countries, always on location rather than adding the surreal and ornate landscape in during editing.
The film is carried in part by these visuals. If there was ever a movie that will suffer on a small cell or tablet screen with poor contrast it is this one. In place of the quick cutting and digitally rendered backgrounds of so many modern films, The Fall opts primarily for long takes of locations the reader recognizes from photographs out of national geographic archives and lists of exotic architecture. All of these locations are put to use, in their rich palettes, complex geometrical patterns, and mind blowing spaces, to create a dreamlike air to the inner narrative. While some viewers might be looking for a film with tighter action and setting, once you buy into Tarsem Singh's different mode of visual story telling, he has a truly mesmerizing world to show you.
Despite these surreal landscapes, this is a fantasy movie that still remains entirely within the genre of realism. Keeping the realm of the majestic inside the imagination rich mind of a five year old girl gives both the inner and outer story an added air of credibility and emotional impact. In fact, the entire movie is told from the point of view of Alexandria, a five year old child of a migrant worker family in the hospital for a badly broken arm. She speaks poor English, and rarely gets visitors, but she is well enough to wander around the grounds. The viewer learns Roy's story (barring a brief introduction scene) only as she sneaks peeks of it around corners, or as she is hurried in or out of rooms. The outside plot, set in a color drained, confined space, could not be more different from the epic tale Roy tells her, but as Alexandria slowly unravels both, they both become tales of intrigue.
As the movie progresses, parts of the two worlds start to combine. Imagery from the hospital finds it's way into Roy's epic story of revenge, and fantasy characters gain the identities of people around the hospital. The reverse is true as well. Roy's story finds it's way into Alexandria's life in the hospital, informing her actions and reactions. Roy, having intended this from the beginning, uses the girl's interest and dedication to the story to have her help in his suicide plot. As both stories near their climax, Alexandria refuses to be a passive observer, and both stories become as much her own as they are anyone else's.
While the stunning visuals are what set this film apart, it is Catinca Untaru's portrayal of Alexandria that allows it survive. Herself a 6 year old Romanian actress, her character is about as genuine and natural as I have ever seen a child in a movie. Her scenes throughout the hospital were film in order on purpose, so that as Untaru's English improved, so did Alexandria's, and as the actress's front teeth grew back in, that, too was incorporated into the script. Alexandria, unlike many children characters, feels real, active, and motivated. Her actions, because they were partly improvised by Untaru, belong genuinely to a girl, struggling to learn English, in a world of adults.
The film ends, with an old film reel of stunts from early silent films, though I will let you find out the emotional impact yourself, to avoid giving away the resolution. Its impact, artistically, is to reinforce that this is a movie about how films have been made, and continue to be made, the choices directors, producers and actors make. It is Tarsem Singh acknowledging that he is fully aware this is not the kind of movie his viewer might be used to, but that each movie is about what can be done weighed against what the crew makes efforts to do, and ultimately, how the audience receives it. It is, at its core, a movie about movie making, and a story about storytelling.