The Fall opens with a montage of a 1920s movie company filming on train tressle bridge, pulling up from a river a horse that has died in a stunt gone wrong. We later learn that Roy (played with subtly by Lee Pace), the main character and a stunt man in the movie, has been paralyzed in the fall.
Switch to a hospital in Los Angeles “once upon a time.” Alexandria (played by charming Rumanian child-actress Catina Untaru), an unaffected 5 year old, has written a note to her nurse which she throws down to her. It ends up in Roy’s room. Alexandria, a Rumanian refugee, had fallen while picking oranges and broken her arm which is set in a rigid cast. As she sets out in the hospital, she sees an X-Ray technician in his lead protective garb [who frightens Alexandria and becomes the prototype of Odious’s henchmen dogs]. Searching for her note, she sees Roy reading it [we recognize it because it is decorated by cut out diamonds]. Alexandria goes in to retrieve her note from him. While talking with Roy, she stands looking toward a door. Through the keyhole (like through a camera lens) an image of a horse appears. When a nurse opens the door, Alexandria is transfixed with an image of man and horse. Roy begins telling her a story about her namesake, Alexander the Great, and she immediately imagines him on a horse in Roman ruins.
Breaking into the story, Alexandria joins Roy. He looks at the contents of her treasure box, which include an elephant trinket and a photograph of her family (with her father and her horse). Roy asks her if she has stolen these things. She replies that she has found them.
As the story resumes, Roy tells Alexandria that he was wrong, that Alexander the Great had no horse and was lost in a desert with his men and no water. We see then, in glorious vista, a group of men in a vast desert. One of Alexander’s men returns on horseback. He gives him a note to read (the note has diamond shapes cut out). The man gives Alexander a helmet with water saying that it is all the water that could be found. Alexander pours it onto the sand.
“Why?” asks Alexandria. “What would you do better?” asks Roy. “I would give every soldier just a little bit.” In this their first story, some of the ground rules for the film are set up: Roy will be the storyteller, but Alexandria imagines the story based on her experiences and suggests changes in the narrative. At any point, the narrative can be intruded upon, reminding us it is only a story. Roy asks her to return when he will tell her a great epic adventure of love and revenge. [Later in the film Roy says the only the reason he is telling her the story is to get her to steal his medicine for him.]
When the doctor comes and ends the interview, Alexandria meets an old man who offers her an orange. Then he takes out his false teeth and tries to entertain her with them. Later in bed, Alexandria is studying a picture of the itinerant workers in the orange grown, including an Indian in a turban. Only five, she goes to the head nurse, Nurse Evelyn her mother substitute, to be held and comforted.
At this point, we are introduced to other characters in the hospital story, including a compassionate doctor, an African-American iceman, and Roy’s film colleagues—the man with one leg (who tells Roy that losing his leg opened up new acting opportunities—especially playing one legged pirates), the leading man who has stolen Roy’s love from him (who becomes Odious), and the leading lady who has jilted him.
Symbols of the film include Alexandria’s box of treasures, oranges, the horse, false teeth, the man with the gap teeth. Everywhere Alexandria goes she carries her cigar box of treasures—an elephant figurine she found, a picture of her father [a man with gap teeth] and family with their horse. Her box later becomes Darwin's treasure box also. The symbol of the orange is obvious. It is how Alexandria’s immigrant family sustain themselves. The horse is a little more subtle. The first image of the horse is the dead horse being lifted up from the water. For Roy, therefore, the horse represents the fall which left him paralized. When Alexandria waits to talk with Roy, Alexandria faces a door and sees a horse reflected through a keyhole onto the wall. Later in the film, Alexandria’s imagination shows us how her father was killed by men burning their house and stealing their horse. For both, therefore, it might be the tangible symbol of what they have loss… a loss which bonds them.
Roy finally begins his “epic tale of love and revenge.” Five bandits—changed from pirates because Alexandria doesn’t like pirates—exist on Butterfly Island, sent there by their nemesis, Governor Odious. The five men have all been hurt by Odious. The first is an African who has been a slave to Odious The second is an Indian who strokes his eyebrow when he thinks (seen by Alexandria as her turbaned friend from India, even though Roy talks about his “squaw”). Odious has kidnapped his wife who dies escaping him. The third, an explosives expert, has been banished by Odious. The fourth, the scientist Charles Darwin who is trying to find the goal of his life--a butterfly (interjects Alexandria), the Americanus Exoticus. Finally there is the blue bandit, who Roy makes her father, complete with his gap teeth. The men are trapped on the island because the blue bandit can’t swim. Darwin’s pet monkey tells him of an elephant swimming—and the blue bandit rides to land on the elphant’s back.
When they reach the barren land, they find a tree with a mystic who has been trapped inside. Darwin says he has birds in his stomach. The mystic leads the men to Odious’ castle. At one point, he eats their map and that map eventually reappears on his body as magical tattoos.
In the hospital story, Alexandria eventually steals some hosts from the hospital priest and offers one to Roy. “Are you trying to save my soul?” he jokes. She doesn’t understand his question. At this point, Roy has the idea that perhaps she can steal for him the “medicine” he needs to commit suicide. He asks her to steal “m-o-r-p-h-i-n-3” and when she does, she brings him 3 pills instead of the whole bottle.
In Roy’s story the Blue Bandit eventually becomes Roy as Alexandria’s love for him grows. Eventually Nurse Evelyn enters as the Blue Bandit’s love interest, Sister Evelyn, and Alexandria becomes the Blue Bandit’s daughter, who saves him from Odious’ henchmen—and ultimately from killing himself.
The film gets very dark in the last third as Roy’s depression and desire to kill himself appears in the story. One by one he kills off the characters with whom we have come to identify. Ultimately, Alexandria begs him to live. “I don’t want you to die,” she tearfully tells him, "Make him live." And in a powerful existential moment, he rejects suicide and chooses life for his character--and himself.
The film ends with the hospital and filmmaker characters watching the moving picture that Roy was in. On the screen we see a feathered headdressed Native American Indian who strokes his eyebrow when he thinks, a one legged man who has arrows stuck in his leg, and a masked bandit. At the moment that the masked bandit jumps from the train tressle, he lands on his horse and rides off. Roy’s near-tragic jump has been removed by the magic of cinema. And the film within-a-film ends with the lovers reunited. Alexandria, who has never seen a moving picture, is enthralled.
Jump forward to Alexandria well and out of the hospital, picking oranges with her family. Her turbaned friend is there. She even finds a butterfly. And she tells us that Roy has recovered and gone back to being a stunt-man. We see him do stunts and Alexandria tells us she knows it is him—doing fantastical stunts that other people can’t do. In a glorious montage, we see all these surprising stunts. He has indeed chosen life.
The film sings the power of cinema and storytelling. Gene Siskel once said that great films take us to worlds we’ve never known. Tarsem Singh, the director, filmed in over 18 countries in exotic locales which create a fantastic vision. He allows us to see the subtle love growing between his two main characters while powering our imaginations with impossible actions.
Lee Pace discusses his role:
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