‘The Fall is a mad folly’, wrote the great Roger Ebert in the beginning of his 2006 review of the film. Tarsem Singh considered this opening fatally misleading, and sure, it led to many critics panning The Fall. Little did the critical and commercial world realise that Ebert had gone on to give it four stars. At one point in his review he wrote, ‘It is preposterous, of course’, but went on to put The Fall in that year’s Best Films list.
Fifteen years on, the film has become a cult classic and like many works of art that were misunderstood at the time of their conception but celebrated belatedly, The Fall assumes an aura of melancholic innocence. This isn’t surprising especially when most of its script was shaped by a four-year-old’s dazzlingly pure imagination.
The Fall is set in 1915, Los Angeles. In a largely vacant hospital (waiting for soldiers from World War I), one bed is occupied by a silent movie stuntman, Roy Walker, his leg in a cast. On the other end, in another ward, a Romanian immigrant, Alexandria, has her arm in a cast. Both have had a fall; both are passing endless days in utter boredom. But from the opening shots it is clear that the four-year-old Alexandria is making the most of her perfectly functional legs.
We see the hospital go on routinely; except we see each scene through Alexandria’s eyes. As she scuttles around like a rat nobody notices, it feels like each action, each person exists because her gaze allows them to exist. Everyone and everything then becomes her passing object of study and remains in her memory as visual snapshots. But she can’t juxtapose words with her images, not only because she hasn’t developed the vocabulary yet, but also because her English is poor.
The stage is ripe for Roy’s entry then. With a broken leg and heart, he decides to indulge a curious girl to kill time. So begins the story within a story. Roy’s words (Lee Pace was cast because of the baritone to rival Christopher Lee’s) and Alexandria’s images together weave a story that goes on to become more than just a bedtime fable, and that changes faster than a child’s jumpy mind.
We spend most of the time watching this story unfold, concocted by Roy whose inspirations seem to be drawn from every news headline of 1915. The story follows the adventures of five bandits as they take their revenge on the evil governor Odious: the bandits are an black ex-slave, an Italian explosives expert, Charles Darwin with his pet monkey Wallace (a riff of the very real feud between Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace) and, finally, a blue-masked bandit.
The visuals we see are entirely at the disposal of Alexandria’s will: she wants the Indian to be a man from India (with a beard and turban), not a native American like Roy meant; she wants the princess in the tale to be a pretty nurse she likes; all the bad guys are the hospital staff she doesn’t like or is scared of. Roy becomes the blue bandit because that’s what she wants. It is sweet. Too sweet, as many critics pointed out back in the day.
Alexandria’s boundless imagination literally contained no boundaries. The film was shot in 28 countries across 4 years. No computer-generated visuals. The deserts are as orange as we see, the seas as blue, the greens as earthly. From Jodhpur to South Africa, the canvases are painted with real blood and sweat. The reds are vermillion-esque, the oranges tangerine. The eternal winding staircases, the labyrinths, the elephants swimming in the sea, they are all so visceral that a visual effects-prone viewer can’t help but gasp in wonder as if blinded by light after spending ages in the dark. Everything is pure, an ode to the purity of a child’s world-building. Catinca Untaru’s non-acting is the core of the film. The actress didn’t know English, and so as she grapples with words, the sound of her dialogues begs the screenplay to jump to her visuals.
The film, financed by Tarsem himself (no one would invest in this child’s-play of a script apparently), was labelled a ‘vanity project’ by Variety. But if this is what a vain artist can deliver, give me more. After all, Roy’s and Alexandria’s bedtime story, with all its silliness, brings to mind Radhe for me. Now that is a wish-fulfilment exercise masquerading as an adult entertainment. This is the hypocrisy The Fall avoided. It was honest in its intentions and was derided for it.
With all the sweetness that the film was both applauded and criticised for, there is an inherent sadness to the story Roy and Alexandria are writing. Stories help us escape, but they also help us live our dismal lives. Both Roy and Alexandria project themselves into their story. Roy, a mere stuntman in the shadow of a real hero, becomes a real hero in their story. Alexandria, a farm worker whose colourful inner life is dampened by the poverty of her family, finds escape in the Istanbul palaces.
It’s like they both had another self, a drawer of their consciousness. It took a chance encounter and the help of a companion to make this short story work beyond the opening lines. Alex and Roy are collaborators, who, in the guise of indulging one another, end up saving each other.
After all, the character of Roy was based on a real life stuntman Wallace Reid, who too, after an injury during a train stunt in 1919, ended up in a hospital where he got addicted to morphine and died four years later at age 32. The Fall is, then, Tarsem’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood: a retelling of history to drill home the point that, at the end, it’s the road to our own imaginations that will save us; we just need an unassuming companion. Then, just like Tarsem, our labour of love will leave us fulfilled.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.