In a hospital bed in the Los Angeles of long ago, a stuntman lies crippled after an act of pointless bravura. He befriends a young immigrant girl with a broken arm and weaves fantastical stories to entertain and beguile her. He tells of a slave, an Indian, an explosives expert, the naturalist Charles Darwin and his monkey Wallace, and a mysterious masked bandit who have all sworn to seek revenge against the villainous Governor Odious. Does the stuntman Roy have an ulterior motive for befriending the girl Alexandria and do his stories have a darker meaning?
This is an infuriatingly flawed film.
It is part Wizard of Oz, The Princess Bride and The English Patient with a dash of Cinema Paradiso thrown in for good measure. The narrative, such as it is, is vague, and while the acting of the child star is wonderfully naturalistic, her fractured English is very hard to follow on occasion. However, it is possibly the most stunningly beautiful film I have ever seen. The director Tarsem turns the landscapes and ancient cities that he films, on locations around the world from India to the Czech Republic, into vibrantly coloured canvases in which the actors are almost reduced to abstract brush strokes. We see elephants swimming in clear waters, trees bursting into flames, vast caravans pulled by hundreds of slaves, huge white sail cloths soaking up blood, ochre deserts that hide cool green oases. This is spectacle on a grand scale, almost jaw droppingly so at times.
The problem is that the flaws with the narrative get in the way too often. There is not quite enough contrast between the fantasy of the stories and the world of the hospital - it may have stretched the comparison with Wizard of Oz to breaking point, but if the hospital scenes had been filmed in black and white, or at least in a more subdued colour palate, it would have helped enormously. The story takes a dangerous lurch into mawkishness towards the end, but it is redeemed by a brief coda showing scenes of the hair raising stunts of early motion pictures.
So it is flawed, but still well worth seeing. I would far rather watch this than the empty bombast of yet another Hollywood CGI blockbuster. In fact, I could just watch the fantasy sequences of this film set to music on a large screen and be perfectly happy with that. Oh, and there wasn't quite enough sword fighting for my tastes. Your mileage may vary.