Justine Waddell, from

Dir. Tarsem Singh
(R) ★ ★ ★ ★

There isn’t a single shot in The Fall that isn’t interesting. The great majority are beautiful. Several are astonishing. Shot in two dozen countries, the film takes advantage of some of the most remarkable locations in the world and redefines the possibilities of the medium. It has Lawrence of Arabia’s sensitivity to physical space, shown in glorious wide shots of deserts, mountains, and architecturally magnificent buildings. It is equally attentive to color, a broad palate showcased in the remarkable costumes and natural landscapes. There are no green screens. This is an easy bet for my list of the year’s best films.

The director is Tarsem Singh — credited only as Tarsem, but we can forgive his indulgence. He reportedly spent seventeen years scouting the locations and, I think, singlehandedly justifies the creation of an Academy Award category for location scouts. From Muslim mosques, to African dunes, to a Brahmin city painted entirely in blue, Tarsem has found the kinds of places that if they didn’t exist you could only have imagined. He previously directed 2000’s The Cell, a grossly underrated film, and before that was a music video director. It is thus no surprise that he has made a film of visual splendor, but he also has a story to match, which brings the film into the same league as Pan’s Labyrinth.

The story proper takes place in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s (filmed in South Africa), where a young Romanian immigrant recovers from a broken arm that was the result of a fall while picking oranges. She is Alexandria, and she’s played by Catinca Untaru, a major discovery. She is befriended by a Hollywood stuntman, Roy (Lee Pace), who also suffered a fall, on the set of a movie, and now is paralyzed from the waist down. He entertains her with an epic story, but he has an ulterior motive.

As they shape the story together, it’s shown to us in fantasy sequences set in the beautiful locales. We learn more about Alexandria and Roy. They become closer. And then the stakes are raised. That’s all I’ll describe of the plot, because I don’t want to spoil its secrets. This is a film of discovery for the eyes and the emotions. It’s the kind of film they don’t make anymore, although I don’t think they ever made them quite like this. Special effects have become a crutch for the movie industry. Used unwisely, they deconstruct wonder and piece it back together as empty spectacle. Movies like 300, Speed Racer, and the recent Star Wars films create grandiose images using computers and then parade actors in front of them. At best, we admire the pretty pictures but feel nothing. There is no joy in it. Compare it to the famous scene in Gone with the Wind where the camera pulls back and reveals an entire battlefield full of dead and wounded soldiers. How did they do it? Lots and lots of extras, gathered in real physical space, to make us feel the human reality of the casualties of war.

Special effects have their place, but like all things in film they are tools best employed by artists. Directors like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Robert Rodriguez have used effects and green screens with great success. The Fall could have been made with green screens. It would have been cheaper and logistically simpler. I think it might still have been a good film, but it would not have captured my imagination the way it does. In The Bucket List, a good film, the Taj Majal was created with visual effects. In The Fall, they go there for real, and the difference is palpable. The reality of the locations achieves a wonder that effects could not reproduce.

I have been a fan of Lee Pace since the premiere of his television series Pushing Daisies last fall. 2008 has been a breakthrough year for him. He earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the series. He appeared on the big screen in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, where he demonstrated a suavity out of old Hollywood. The Fall was filmed before either of those projects and features what may be the best performance of his young career, full of volatile anger directed inwards and outwards.

His co-star Untaru is a revelation. She gives a performance so good I spent much of the film wondering how she was so good. She was six years old when the film was made, but it’s not a precocious performance. She behaves as a six-year-old would behave and speaks as a six-year-old would speak, without affectation and utterly natural, yet the role is also emotionally demanding and she doesn’t miss a beat. How does she do it? It’s a credit to the talent of the young actress, but also to Tarsem’s direction of her. The DVD special features are illuminating: he did not have her memorize lines but rather allowed her some freedom to improvise, and elements of her performance influenced the screenplay. There is a language barrier between the Romanian Untaru and American Lee Pace; rather than work around it, Tarsem uses it, and the actors develop an easy, unforced rapport.

The cinematography is by Colin Watkinson, who remarkably has never photographed another feature film. He previously worked as a focus puller, which proves to be an advantageous skill; during some shots, the actors are on one mountain and the camera is on another. The costumes by Eiko Ishioka are innovative and striking; she’s an Oscar winner for 1992’s Dracula. Robert Duffy’s film editing bridges reality and fantasy and unifies settings from across the globe into a single, mystifying world. Krishna Levy’s score incorporates multiple musical styles and cultures and is at times playful, grand, and solemn. Tarsem is the visionary filmmaker who pulls it all together. This is his first film since 2000. The time was well spent.