A Film Directed by Tarsem Singh
Screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultakanis and Singh
Adapted from the film Yo Ho Ho by Valeri Petrov
The title of the new film from director Tarsem Singh with a screenplay (adapted from the 1981 Bulgarian film - undistributed outside of that country - Yo Ho Ho by Valeri Petrov) by Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, and Singh, is intentionally ambiguous.
It certainly refers to the two physical falls sustained by the two principle characters. Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is a stuntman in the nascent Hollywood Film Industry of 1915, who has been partially-paralyzed in an attempt to perform a horseback leap off a railroad trestle. He is despondent over his physical condition, his loss of employment and the loss of the actress, object of his affections, to her leading man.Alexandria is the daughter of a family of eastern European migrant fruit-pickers who has fallen out of a tree and broken her collar bone. She finds her injury and the new life in the hospital while it heals a fascinating adventure.
But it also refers to the moral and spiritual "falls," as Walker, in his desperation, seeks to manipulate his trusting young friend to serve his own ends, and Alexandria finds herself falling from a state of innocence into knowledge of the darkness, duplicity and suffering in the world.
This is interesting stuff that approaches some very difficult and archetypal themes. Unfortunately, Singh's background (he made his reputation directing music videos) betrays him here and he short-changes these pithy concerns in favor of arresting imagery almost (as in many music viedos) for its own sake.
To win over Alexandria and convince her to do what he wants (to acquire enough morphine to commit suicide) Walker spins a fabulous tale of five heroes on a quest to destroy the evil "Governor Odious." As he tells the story, it is played out in fantasy sequences that give the director an opportunity to indulge (and over-indulge) his talent for combining exotic landscape, colorful and outlandish costume and extreme camera-work.
The images he creates are in many ways appropriate for the kind of fantasy he is spinning, but they are so strong that they overwhelm the narrative flow rather than propelling it forward. The fact that one of the co-screenwriters (Soultanakis) also comes out of the world of music-video probably didn't help restrain the impulse to go over the edge in creating the kinds of evocative, stylized, symbolic images that can work very well in that world, but don't necessarily serve as well in narrative feature films.
Audiences can only sit still for a limited amount of time - about 2 hours is considered the "comfort limit." While Singh is lingering on an exquisite tableau of whirling Sufi dancers in an ancient temple, the progress of an elaborate and fanciful vehicle propelled by slaves across a salt-flat in front of stark mountains, or a "mystic" emerging from a tree on a spit of sand in a desert lake, the development of the personalities and relationships that would make his characters and their actions more appealing and engaging goes begging.
It is always part of the risk of films with strong "fantasy" or "magical realist" elements that the powerful ability of film to bring fantasy to life, to animate "magic,Ó will become the center of the exercise and overpower the actual object, which is to tell a meaningful and coherent story. Singh's film, in spite of its visual beauty and some fine performances, is diminished by that loss of focus.
As a result, we don't get to understand in any deep way what Walker is going through, why his accident - a fairly predictable occurrence in the life of a daredevil stuntman - throws him into a suicidal depression. We only get the thinnest (and most unconvincing) of hints about the loss of his relationship with the actress that supposedly compounds his suffering. We see flashbacks of Alexandria's family being attacked in their unspecified-eastern European-homeland, we are told that her father is dead, but we are given little insight into her resulting state of mind and how she has come to terms with the dual trauma of the loss of her father and emigration. This lack of attention to detail renders the characters less accessible and makes their emotional evolution less satisfying.
The film is most successful in its pure fantasy sequences. The imagery is stunning, photographed on location in more than eighteen countries ranging from Bali to the UK to Turkey and India. There doesn't seem to be a lot of CGI enhancement, with most of the images created in actual (as opposed to "virtual") environments. This presentation of far-fetched situations and larger-than-life characters with actual physical locations gives these sections of the movie an arresting presence.
The fantasy story - like those of such classics as The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, and even the Wizard of Oz (from which it borrows the device of actors playing dual roles in both the "story" and the realist narrative) - doesn't need to justify its events and the characters' responses in terms of realist logic. Freedom from such demands means it is much easier to make this part of the story work - even when Walker takes it into some pretty dark and painful places.
Without strong performances by the two leads, and a believable relationship between them, the fabric of the film would not have held together as well as it does. It is in Singh's favor that he is able to develop the chemistry between his two actors so well, given the limitations (self-)imposed by the shortcomings of the script and the film's structure - as described above.
Lee Pace, for whom this is his first leading role in a feature film, acquits himself well. He is hard pressed to make his suicidal desperation and the selfish manipulation it engenders believable, while keeping his character appealing. With little back-story to provide emotional grounding for Walker's struggle, Pace still manages to put his anguish and guilt across with a reasonable degree of credibility.
Roumanian actress Catinca Untaru who plays Alexandria, makes his job somewhat easier. A child-actor who avoids "acting," and is able to simply be herself in front of the camera, she brings a solid sense of emotional honesty to the character, which then becomes an effective foil for Pace to play against. The unstudied - and sometimes seemingly unexpected - spontaneity of her responses and line-readings elevates several of her scenes with Pace beyond the level of the raw material of the script and engages the audience with what is clearly an authentic and interesting personality.
Most of the rest of the cast - as befits their dual roles in the film's two worlds - are required to be more iconic than authentic. They perform well, but they aren't called to do much, other than to pose effectively before Singh's camera. When they are required to evoke an emotional moment however, they generally succeed.
The camera-work is showy and sensational. While it would seem affected and artificial in a realistic film, here it is very much in keeping with the appropriately over-blown dimensions of the story-within-the-story. Some of it is certainly breath-taking, which is both its strength and its weakness.
This is a big-screen film, whose wonderful visuals will be lost on all but the largest home set-ups. Singh proves himself here to be a master of visual style. His ability to tell a compelling and emotionally resonant story is suggested, but unfortunately not realized to the same degree. Nonetheless, this film is enjoyable to watch and may prove to be a slightly-halting first step in the careers of a director, crew, and at least a couple of actors of significant talent.
That's my take on it. What's yours?