The Fisher King (1991)


Another trip down the long and deeply emotional lane of nostalgia. The Fisher King was one of the first films I ever saw as a young cinephile, roughly about ten years ago. What struck me on the rewatch of the film was that it was exactly the same film that I remember – the deeply emotional and endearingly touching comedy that moved me to tears so many times. I felt the exact way about this film when I watched it yesterday as when I had watched it a decade ago. However, this review won’t be tainted by me looking at this film through rose-tinted glasses – rather, I will treat it as any other film – and saying that, The Fisher King is one of those films that will move you so much, you will never look at society in the same way again. In a nutshell, The Fisher King is one of the most important films ever made.

I recently did a university course on Quest Literature. It got me thinking about how quests have been portrayed in films – and more specifically, how quests have been portrayed in films which are not set in the Medieval era, for which there are many. However, what would happen if the two were to come crashing into each other? That is what Richard LaGravenese attempted to show when he wrote The Fisher King – how do you bring the Middle Ages into the modern world? How does one take the swords and knights and chivalrous actions of the English hills and transplant it in the middle of New York City? At face value, this is exactly what The Fisher King is about – a modern Medieval story, and the search for the elusive Holy Grail, featuring bravery and the search for love. Who better to tell the story of the search for the Holy Grail than one of the men responsible for arguably the greatest Medieval film ever made – Terry Gilliam, who is known for being one of the men behind the brilliant and iconic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is a strange film for Gilliam to have directed, but we’ll discuss that in due course.

Essentially, The Fisher King is about Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a radio shock-jock that prides himself on being a foul-mouthed, no-holds-barred entertainer that enjoys fame and fortune – until some misguided advice to a highly impressionable listener causes a number of shocking fatalities – forcing Jack into leaving his cushy life and adopting a seemingly meaningless life, working for his girlfriend who runs a trashy video store. Just as Jack’s life seemed to be hitting its low, he is saved from a suicide attempt by Parry (Robin Williams), an eccentric homeless man who believes himself to be a knight, set on a quest by the Divine Almighty to acquire the Holy Grail, which is apparently located in the library of a millionaire in Manhattan. Needless to say, Jack doesn’t choose to stick around – but when he discovers that Parry has a much deeper heart than he imagined, in the form of his adoration for a socially awkward woman (Amanda Plummer), along with a starling revelation, Jack stays to help Parry, and soon finds himself with a friend who he found in the most depressing part of his life. If that is not a concept for a deeply moving film, then I am not quite sure what is – and there is not a single part of The Fisher King‘s story that rings false or doesn’t have a strong emotional resonance behind it. However, the concept isn’t what makes The Fisher King the extraordinary film that it is – rather, it is the combination of Gilliam’s vision, along with the powerful performances, that catapults this film into the territory of absolute transcendent brilliance.

This film is the perfect Robin Williams film – and that comes from a person that believes everything Robin Williams has done has been perfect. Now I know that we were all so deeply saddened by Robin’s death eighteen months ago (and it still feels so raw, even now), and The Fisher King doesn’t make those feelings any less painful. Now I can only speak as an enormous fan and deep admirer of his work, but Robin Williams was one of the most brutally honest performers to ever live – perhaps not in how he divulged his personal life, but rather in how he humanized every single one of his performances, and made each of them so human, regardless of the film he was in. The aspect of Robin that set him apart from his contemporaries was that he was not only blisteringly hilarious, and is responsible for some of the greatest comedy films of all time, but that he was also an established dramatic actor. However, these two aspects of his career never truly met, and perhaps the fact that his career is so iconic is because he was known for being able to appear in a gut-bustingly hilarious film one day, and a heavily dramatic film the next.

The Fisher King is the most successful of the few attempts to marry the dramatic Robin Williams with the most popularly known and loved comedic Robin. As Parry, Robin is capable of being completely off-the-wall and to stretch his never-ending comedic skills – but also to play a character who is filled with sadness, someone who is detached from reality, not because of how strange he is, but because of the tragedy that forced him into the bizarre figure he is perceived as. Robin juggles the two facets of the character so brilliantly, and I find it difficult to conceptualize any other comedic actor being able to bring the emotional heft to the role, just as I find it very difficult to visualize even the most talented dramatic actor being responsible for the hilarious and endearing traits that make us love the character. Forgive the long-winded praise of Robin Williams (however, I do not regret it, because Robin Williams deserves every bit of praise he gets, as his memory and legacy elevates him into the status of an absolute legend – if that hasn’t already happened). The Fisher King represents Robin at his very best, and I think it is just quite simply a perfect performance from an actor who never truly gave a bad one.

It is easy to see The Fisher King as only being a showcase for Robin Williams – but to do that would be to ignore the great performances from the rest of the cast. Jeff Bridges is always a reliably great actor, he is able to play with some great comedic scenarios in The Fisher King, along with bringing his dramatic talents to the film. It would be utterly wrong to ignore that Bridges was the emotional core of this film – and even though Robin Williams does something truly amazing here, Bridges holds his own and gives one of his finest performances in his entire career. Mercedes Ruehl was an absolute scene-stealer, and as Anne, the caustic and catty businesswoman unlucky enough to be in a relationship with Brides’ character, she is marvelous. I am utterly shocked that her performance here (and deserving Academy Award win) didn’t propel her to having a much better career – but her performance in The Fisher King is good enough.

I mentioned how this is a strange film for Terry Gilliam to direct – which it really is. Looking at his other films, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, it was clear that he was gifted in the art of telling strange and bizarre stories, with colorful characters and far-fetched plots. However, nothing in his career suggested that he was capable of handling the delicate and emotionally resonant story of The Fisher King as well as he did. While it features countless Gilliam trademarks, it is also the director’s most mature and developed film, as it tells a story of humanity – there are some fantastical elements to the film, as one would expect, but overall, it is a very grounded, realistic depiction of society. Gilliam finds the fantasy in reality – he uses situations that are entirely possible, and makes them surreal and strange, which creates a much more entertaining film as opposed to one that simply featured far-fetched fantasy and adventure. Gilliam keeps it grounded – and while I mean absolutely no disrespect to Gilliam (I love all of his films), I would love it if he made a film like The Fisher King again – I wouldn’t want his career to be defined by films like The Fisher King, but rather would like him to explore the avenues of his own dramatic and realistic talent again.

The Fisher King is an amazing film. It changed me as a person – it makes you think about your position in this world, and it has so many lessons hidden in it. I know that every time I rewatch it, I feel a calming sense that we have the power to change ourselves and our world, and what we say can and will affect someone at some point in our lives. It will also change your perception of the homeless and those that do not have what we have – and if this film helps even one person to reject the thought that the homeless person we see begging is actually a human being with a story as opposed to just a drug-addicted hobo, then The Fisher King certainly did what it seems to have set out to achieve. It itself, it is a film characterized by how extraordinarily complex but strangely simple it is at the same time. It represents a high point in the careers of everyone involved – and the fact that it isn’t revered more as a brilliant film is utterly disappointing. If you have never seen The Fisher King, I suggest you watch it. It is just a moving, wonderful film and one that will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your face – and the message behind it is really simple – just be a good person.


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