Tarsem Singh, maestro of dazzle, has poured ample ambition and undeniable heart into “The Fall,” his global fantasia wrapped in an intimate melodrama about two injured souls who enrich each other. But without the wit and spirit that its material demands, the movie amounts to mere achievement in spectacle.
Based on a Bulgarian film but bearing a look distinctive of Tarsem (who uses only his first name), the movie is the writer-director’s sophomore feature following “The Cell.” Like that film, it combines real-world drama with a journey set in a human mind, and whets optic nerves while leaving other essential receiving mechanisms dry.
In a Hollywood hospital circa 1915, stuntman Roy (Lee Pace), paralyzed from a botched bridge feat and suicidal from a broken heart, enthralls fellow patient Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a 5-year-old Eastern European immigrant with a busted arm, by telling her a sweeping adventure story. His motive: to deceive Alexandria into stealing a fatal dose of morphine for him.
Fact and fantasy blend as Roy’s yarn unfolds via Tarsem’s lens.
Bandits, princesses, desert sands, exotic butterflies, a blue city, a swimming elephant and that great adventure hero Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) are just jots of the picture.
The saga’s characters take the form of elaborately costumed versions of familiar folk: a hospital nurse (Justine Waddell); the actor (Daniel Caltagirone) who stole Roy’s girlfriend; Roy and Alexandria themselves.
As Roy’s mood darkens, so does the fate of Roy’s alternate self, a heroic bandit, in Roy’s story. Can Alexandria, with her child’s sense of hope, save Roy?
Tarsem, whose pre-“Cell” career includes music videos and commercials, delivers spectacular imagery, CGI-free and shot in 18 countries. He also touches on interesting aspects of the storyteller-listener relationship.
Unfortunately, however, his emphasis on the visual results in a flood of sensation at the expense of deeper vision.
Beneath the eye gratification, the “epic” Roy weaves, as scripted by Tarsem and two co-writers, is vacuous; Tarsem doesn’t imbue it with fairy-tale charm.
When it turns grim, it’s ugly, lacking the soul and dimension of the dark fantasies of Tim Burton, Darren Aronofsky or, on a good day, Terry Gilliam.
Stealing the show is Untaru, a Romanian newcomer who has a winning naturalness and a lack of sophistication no Hollywood tyke could supply. Even when things get maudlin, she conveys substance and conviction that her director could learn from.
The Fall (2 stars)
Starring Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru
Written by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, Tarsem Singh; based on the screenplay for “Yo Ho Ho” by Valeri Petrov
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Running time 1 hour 56 minutes