4W&1F, as I’ll refer to it, is the film that made Hugh Grant a star. In case you’ve never seen it or have simply forgotten, it’s a perfectly charming comedy that came out of nowhere as a surprise hit and rode that success all the way to an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 1995 (FYI, the Oscar went to Forrest Gump). The syndrome to which I refer has to do with the fact that this was not an Airplane-like howl-fest, nor a Gandhi-like epic. It was just a sweet little film that accomplished absolutely everything it set out to do, and it did so with taste, wit, and intelligence. The problem is that people who went to see it later in its run, after the Hype Machine had gotten cranked up, were in many cases a little underwhelmed. A film like 4W&1F is a delicate thing that can seem to wilt before the shrill, hot wind of the Hype Machine.
So I must invoke the 4W&1F Syndrome before discussing The Fall, because I’m going to say some lovely things about it, and you may want to rush right out and see it. In fact, I hope you do go to see it. But don’t rush. Just meander down to the theater, take a seat, and let this striking film play out before you.
I had fully intended to see it last week, but a bit of last-minute craziness at work compelled me to stay there until 11 p.m. on my chosen movie night. I ended up going to a 10:10 showing on a Wednesday night by myself. No more than a few dozen patrons shared the theater with me, and though I wish this film much success, I’m glad I was able to concentrate on it in relative solitude. That’s an exception for me. Usually, I prefer seeing a film with a friend so we can bounce our impressions of the film off one another afterward, but this turned out to be a good one to see alone.
The film is set in a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles. The two main characters are both patients there. One is a little girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a Romanian child of farm workers who has broken her arm in an orange grove accident. The other is Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a Hollywood stunt man who has suffered a serious injury as the result of a stunt gone awry. The bulk of the film involves a series of conversations between these two, in which Roy spins a complex fairy tale of adventure, romance, and magic.
Ah, but this is nothing like My Dinner With Andre. In that film, we spend all of our time watching the two of them eat a meal together while they talk. In The Fall, we see the story playing out on-screen through Alexandria’s eyes. This becomes very clear in one amusing moment, when Roy refers to a character being an Indian. He also refers to the Indian’s wigwam and his squaw, but these words obviously go right by Alexandria – what we see on-screen is a man from India. Alexandria is barely removed from her native Romania. Her English is still somewhat broken and she still has much to learn about her new land and new language.
There is another remarkable element to this film upon which I must elaborate. The director/co-writer of this film, Tarsem Singh (he bills himself by his first name only), spent four years shooting this footage in 18 different countries. According to what I’ve read about him, Tarsem has been a commercial director for 20 years and has traveled the world in doing so. Along the way, he has found many remarkable places and has put a great many of them into The Fall. It is said that there are no computer-generated locations on display here. There are, to be sure, some special effects, but they are all achieved through more old-fashioned cinematic techniques.
Here is what I’ve been struggling to describe to you: as engrossing as the story is, this film is most memorable as a series of stunning visual images. As our imaginary band of adventurers makes its way through the world seeking their arch-enemy, Governor Odious, they travel to places, some natural, some man-made, that make one’s jaw drop. Sometimes the jaw merely drops a little and turns into a smile; other times it falls all the way to the floor. I am so very glad I saw this on the big screen in all of its vivid, colorful detail.
Incidentally, the film was nearly over before I realized the double entendre of the name Odious for the bad guy. At this point in his life, Roy is pretty bitter about show business, and the old Greek word for performance hall is odeum (or odeon). In the early 20th century, these were fairly common names for vaudeville or movie houses. I don’t know whether the double entendre was intentional, but I’d like to think it was!
There is one phrase that should never be used in a review of this film. It goes like this: “In films like The Fall…” No, that phrase should never be used because I don’t think there are any films like it. Perhaps some broad comparisons could be made to Cinema Paradiso or even to The Princess Bride, but The Fall is in a place by itself. I don’t know whether Tarsem has another feature film in him, but I’m glad he got this one out of his system and here in the world where we need it.
A couple of notes on the two principal actors: Catinca Untaru as Alexandria gives one of the most natural performances you could ever hope to see from a child actor. I believed every word that came out of her mouth, even when her accent and poor grammar rendered her unintelligible. Just as with Tarsem, I don’t know whether she has another film in her, but we thank our lucky stars for her presence in this one. As for Lee Pace as Roy, my Detroit theater friends might be interested to know that he bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Glenn Pruett – even sounds like him at times (apologies to my non-Detroit readers).