Terry Gillian’s modern day spin on Arthurian Legend
The legends of King Arthur has fueled big screen adventures for many decades. Beyond the familiar fare, some of the lesser known lore has also been mined for more unique tales, take The Green Knight for instance. Another tale set away from the round table and Merlin is The Fisher King, a fable of the last in a long line of English Kings, charged with protecting the land and guarding the Holy Grail. An injury renders him unable to walk or father a child, and as he is afflicted, so does the kingdom tied to him start to fail. He commits himself to the side of a stream, fishing until a “chosen one” who can heal him comes to his aid, a heroic figure who can save the king and in doing so, preserve the land and the Grail. A medieval adventure of flawed heroes and redemption, where myth collides with man. Something director Terry Gilliam (Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) has previous experience with.
Set in 90s Manhattan, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a former radio radio shock jock. Losing his job after some callous remarks on air led to a mass murder-suicide incident, he has been engulfed by guilt, depression, and drink. Reaching a new low, he contemplates suicide, and on that same fateful night, his path crosses with Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man plagued by demons of his own, as well as an enduring belief that he is charged with finding the Holy Grail. A relic he believes to be secure in the possession of an architect on the Upper East Side. Haunted by a terrifying ‘Red Knight’, a spectre of legend, and one that hints at his traumatic past, Parry draws Jack into his world, forging a friendship, and uncovering their paths have connected long before their current journey together.
The script from Richard LaGravenese (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County) transplants medieval legend to modern day, with themes that still resonate. Dignity and legacy, heroics and healing. The trauma, guilt, and mental illness so intrinsic to the story, stem from a tragedy that seems even more prevalent today than it was back in the 90s,. It’s an incident that ties these men together on an emotional journey. Their mismatched nature conjures up some well needed humor to offset the darker tones, and two standout performances from the careers of Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams pull the film back from going too far into sentimentality. With his past endeavors, it’s clear why this epic-inspired story appealed to Gilliam, yet with it’s more grounded core, some of his wilder tendencies have been reigned in. Even so he brings a keen eye and flair to the film with evocative camera positioning, canted angles, and wide-lens shots. Narrative mood is well complemented by the cinematography of Roger Pratt, which heightens the sense of grandeur in these murky NY surrounds, as well as the pain and romanticism that comes from within this deeply human tale.
Criterion’s release features an all new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Terry Gilliam. The transfer marks a step-up in detail of image, opening up a greater range of color and contrast. The many murkier parts of New York have increased depth within the shadows, colors are strong but natural, the Red Knight notably pops wonderfully. The image is free of any artifacts, and presents a consistently high quality image throughout. It’s a superb transfer. Criterion’s release offers up one disc containing the 4K version of the film, while the other includes a Blu-ray version of the same restoration, along with a host of extra features.
- Audio commentary featuring Gilliam: A detailed recording from Gilliam, as he breaks down logistical aspects of the shoot, and his own personal views on the script, characters, and themes of the film. One of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while in terms of depth and breadth of content
- Interviews with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl: A detailed and open series of interviews that view the film pre and post production, including in the wake of its release and reception. Some really interesting context, notably in terms of the director’s vision and script jarring with the studio, and Gilliam’s reputation for on set issues and budget overruns
- Interviews with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on the creation of the film’s Red Knight: The Tale of the Red Knight – the artists dig into the aesthetic choices and the technical problems
- The Tale of the Fisher King: Comprised of two new short featurettes that tackle the casting, production setup, approach to design, and the themes of the script
- Interview from 2006 with actor Robin Williams: A frank conversation with the actor, who shares his impressions of the script, the onset experiences, and his collaboration with bridges.
- Video essay featuring Bridges’s on-set photographs: Bridges is renowned for his photography, even while shooting a film. This feature compiles a selection of the shots taken during production, with some discussion by the actor
- Footage from 1991 of Bridges training as a radio personality with acting coach Stephen W. Bridgewater: Rehearsals and improv sessions as Bridges learns how to be a “shock jock”
- Deleted scenes, with audio commentary by Gilliam: Sourced from a workprint, but presented in a manner to ‘cut’ them into the final film. The commentary by Gilliam also adds context for their purpose and their excision. Six scenes all running around 2 to 3 minutes: Jack and Sondra’s Love Life, Lydia Dances (silent), Jack Locates Lydia, Beth, Jack’s New Girl, Jack Revisits Parry’s Friends, and Jack Hallucinates
- Costume tests:
- Trailers: 3 domestic, 2 international
- PLUS: An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri: In the enclosed liner notes booklet
- New Cover by LA2
The Bottom Line
The Fisher King is a beguiling effort, blending empathetic storytelling with modern-day myth. Gillian’s abstract tendencies tinge the more grounded humor and darkness of the film, while the pairing of Williams and Bridges anchors the whole piece. A poignant feature, one given a superb release by Criterion, matching the quality of its 4K presentation with a superb collection of extra features.
The Fisher King 4K-UHD is available via Criterion now