"The Fall" is what you'd get if you told a fiendishly gifted graphic illustrator the plot of "The Princess Bride" and sent him off to come up with his own version. Years in the making, shot with camera throttles wide open in 18 countries, this fairy-tale-within-a-tale is a personal labor of love for filmmaker Tarsem Singh ("The Cell") and a work of gorgeous, lunatic ambition. As a movie, it's kind of a mess.
Still, "The Fall" begs to be seen for the elements that Tarsem (the director's preferred nom du cinema) has stuffed into it like a confectioner with ADHD lavishing care upon a cannoli. Swimming elephants, dastardly governors, beautiful women with avant-tribal face masks, labyrinths of despair, and a young adventurer named Charles Darwin are just some of the elements that swirl around the film's slender narrative thread.
At the center - as always - is a child listening to a story. She is Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a 5-year-old immigrant girl in the hospital with a broken arm after falling from a tree while picking oranges. The place is Los Angeles, the time the early 20th century, and the child befriends Roy Walker (Lee Pace), a silent-movie stuntman with paralyzed legs and a broken heart. In exchange for undercover deliveries of morphine, he spins Alexandria a tale.
The naturalism of these hospital scenes is a conceit more than anything else - Tarsem couldn't do realism if he had a gun to his head - but Untaru is a find: a movie kid who acts like a real kid, with the proper mix of charm, annoyance, and amateurishness.
Roy's story, by contrast, is a wild and woolly bit of high adventure shot by cinematographer Colin Watkinson as if National Geographic and Aperture were footing the bills. It involves a band of five heroes led by the Black Bandit (Pace again) and including a princely African slave (Marcus Wesley), a swami (Julian Bleach), an explosives expert (Robin Smith), and the aforementioned Darwin (Leo Bill), all tilting at the evil Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) who has imprisoned them. In a touch of Oz, Alexandria casts the adventurers with faces she's seen about the hospital.
Clearly we're in the Land of Ye Olde Fantasy Movie Archetypes, with films like "Princess Bride," "Legend," "The NeverEnding Story," and "Pan's Labyrinth" just visible over the horizon. (In fact, "The Fall" was loosely adapted - inflated, really - from a 1981 Bulgarian film called "Yo ho ho.") Where "Bride" was a triumph of gentle irony, though, "The Fall" coasts on rococo visual excess, throwing in the Taj Mahal as if the characters had acquired enough frequent flier miles and sending enemy soldiers zigzaggurating up M.C. Escher staircases. The movie dazzles unto surfeit; you want to hang the individual frames on your wall but seeing them one after another is like being frog-marched through a museum.
Nor do the characters pick up the slack. There's no one here with the easy, instant charisma of Mandy Patinkin's Inigo Montoya in "Bride," although Justine Waddell as a real-world nurse and fantasy-world princess gives off a playful spark. The performances are oppressed by the scenery, so when "The Fall" takes a climactic turn for the grim, only the young and tender stand to be dismayed. Others may marvel that a director with such astonishing command over his images should trip over a little matter of tonal consistency.
For all the visual noise, the only time Tarsem actually touches profundity is when the stuntman and the little girl argue over the direction his fairy tale is taking. Why are such bad things happening, she vehemently demands to know. "It's my story," he insists. "Mine, too," she responds. Point taken; "The Fall" might even belong to its audience if it could be wrested away from its director's loving, monomaniacal care.