The Fisher King: Movie Review

  February 12th, 2009

fisher king robin williams

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/ © 2009

[posted by C Way at 2:37 PM]


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Comments (4) To “The Fisher King: Movie Review”

  1. Albert L. said:

    Hello. I again watched a few evenings ago this forgotten (largely) gem. I am a sixtyish man (how old I mean), and still teared up when Parry makes his plea to Lydia on her doorstep(s), then to realize he is lost (again) and the Red Knight rears up at the end of the block — it looks like 80th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam where I once lived!)

    Also the Red Knight scenes still sear…I have seen mental illness in my family, and this seems to encapsulate it very well.

    May this treasure be rediscovered widely. Sincerely, Albert

  2. C Way said:

    Albert, thanks for finding my review! I agree with you on all points. Gilliam and crew made something really enduring here and I think maybe it’s because it’s sort of hard to pin down category-wise (comedy? drama? Fantasy?) that more people don’t recognize the power of the film. Cheers! -C /

  3. Rupert McWiseman said:

    The sort of film Mahler would have made, had he been a movie director instead of a composer. That’s a great analogy and mirrors my own reaction to the film – except I was constantly reminded of Shakespeare – especially King Lear! There’s the fallen King, the wise fool, and the equivalent of a blinding-of-Gloucester moment in the horrific scene showing the death of Parry’s wife.
    Perhaps a sort of mixture of King Lear and As You Like It would be nearer the mark, because there’s a double love story, song and dance, comedy etc.
    The layers of symbolism give the work its archetypal and moral power. I’m still surprised that none of the professional critics spotted the dual theme of forgiveness (“well, FORGIVE ME!”) which lies at the film’s core.
    The critics all “got”the fact that Jack’s quest is to forgive himself. None of them seemed to note that Parry has a harder quest – to forgive Edwin, the nerdy loner who killed Parry’s wife. And in his madness, Parry achieves this by choosing another nerdy loner – Lydia – and rescuing her from the loveless life that eventually drove Edwin to violent despair.
    And that’s why I respond so powerfully to the scene of Parry declaring his love for Lydia. Like your commenter Albert L, I can’t hold back the tears – not only is this a sweet and touching scene, but it’s the moment when Parry achieves his monumentally difficult quest.

  4. S.Crow said:


    Thanks so much for the insightful commentary. I really liked your forgiveness reading and think it’s terrifically spot-on.
    As for Lear — hmm, yes, I don’t know why Lear didn’t come to me during or after the viewing — maybe I’m too many years removed from my collegiate exposure to the bard. This is a fine film that doesn’t get talked about enough in my opinion.
    And I agree about the Mahler reference — Mahler who felt the “Symphony should be the World” — in all its terror, farce, love, hope, disgust, cruelty, salvation. This movie accomplishes so much so well, occupies so many modes… just delivers you such a wide range of feeling during its timespan.
    Thanks for opening my eyes to a number of things regarding this film sir ….it’s so nice to hear from someone else out there who shared the same reaction.

    Regards, Chris/S.Crow

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