February 12th, 2009
I didn’t think much of Robin Williams before this movie. If I thought of him at all it was as a hyperactive, babbly gnome. Now to be clear, The Fisher King *does* find Robin in babbly gnome-mode part of the time. But the rest of the time he’s a complex marvel: tender, knowing, sly, grieving, thoughtful, earnest. I respect his talents so much more after this movie.
In fact, the two scenes I found most stirring involved him. First, the scene where he’s looking up at Lydia, declaring himself with agonizing openness & yearning, the kind of overture that must surely be met by disbelief, fear or ridicule, and which is instead met with complete loving gratitude. Second, the scene where he’s kneeling before the red knight, desperate to be free of the pain and haunting of trauma, offering himself up as sacrifice to the bat-wielding boys, tearfully thankful when the blows & blood come.
Mercedes Ruehl also took my breath away; everything about her performance rang true, from her unrequited mothering love of Jack to her no-nonsense Queens talk to her frustration & pain in the face of Jack’s inability to love and commit. The camera lingers on her face during key emotional scenes and she never disappoints; every charged moment finds her breaking through into a place of total investment in the character and narrative.
I could go on about the plot, the symbolism, the psychological framework, but all that’s amply covered at IMDB, Amazon and any number of other review sites. I don’t write formal plot-summary-ish reviews; I just try to record my most powerful impressions of great art.
That said, the other thing about this movie that stopped me cold was its mature, respectful handling of mental illness, trauma and how people try to help themselves and each other cope with pain. No overdubs, no painful explanatory conversations, no crutches; we’re left largely to construct for ourselves the Story [i.e., the psychological narrative, what the characters are motivated by, what their pain is, what their desires are, why they do what they do] behind the story [i.e., the actual events depicted]. I am always so deeply gratified when a film allows me to do this work; when a film doesn’t pander to me, doesn’t assume my capacities, is totally assured and seems to trust that I have all the tools and experience to meet it on equal terms and come to intimately know it.
Oh and one more thing — this is a movie that is unabashedly emotional. There are strings. There are emotional cues in the music. Pounding drums during tense moments. There is a sublime waltz scene in grand central. There is magical realism; there is fanfare and carnival; it’s a kind of patchwork urban fantasia.This is a film that heartily embraces the conventions of epic film-making. And at first, I kind of cringed in the face of it. Maybe for the first five minutes.
Why? I guess I don’t see a lot of films that are emotional in this way anymore. It’s a language that is rusty in my mouth. But the more it spoke to me, the more I let myself speak back to it in the same way, the easier it became, the more natural it felt. Until the film’s voice began to strike me as something I had been wanting badly to hear. Until I realized this was the only way I wanted this kind of story told — with arms wide for the entire panoply of human feelings — absurdity, buffoonery, desolation, madness. This movie may only take place in Manhattan but behind the screen it is writ large enough to embrace everyone in every place.
Mahler once wrote: “The symphony should be the world”. And The Fisher King is a movie like something Mahler would write — a world expansive and rich, heartbreaking and ridiculous, a little scary, a little desperate, a little corny, but always striving nobly to reach our tragi-comic core.
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2009