Following two critically acclaimed but bruising encounters at the box office – with the wildly surreal and imaginative double bill of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – Terry Gilliam returned to the director’s chair with one of the more accessible films of his career, and delivered one of his biggest hits in the process. The Fisher King tells the story of Jack (Jeff Bridges) a former superstar shock-jock, whose career imploded after an interaction with one of his listeners ended in tragedy.
Years later, and he is a washed-up, suicidal drunk. One night, in the midst of a heavy drinking session, Jack is viciously attacked by thugs. Luckily for him he is rescued by Parry (Robin Williams) who fights them off and chases them away. Parry is a delusional homeless man who believes he is a Knight on a Grail Quest. An unlikely bond forms between these two men as Jack sees a chance to redeem himself, if he can help this poor man get back on his feet. And maybe even find the Holy Grail along the way.
The friendship between Jack and Parry forms the spine of the film, but the beating heart belongs to the women in their lives. Mercedes Ruehl as Anna and Amanda Plummer as Lydia are both sensational. Ruehl took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Anna, the woman into whose life Jack has fallen, and it was mightily deserved. Breathing life into Richard LaGravanese’s wonderful screenplay, the four lead actors deliver some of the best performances of their illustrious careers.
The Fisher King is a feast for the eyes as well as the soul. Gilliam films New York with his trademark eye for the weird and wonderful, finding strange angles, and imposing architecture that add to the medieval quest feel of the film. He takes a scene of homeless people living under one of the enormous bridges of Manhattan, and frames it in such a way to make it appear like a gateway into hell. Then, in the film’s most famous scene, commuters start to waltz in the main concourse of Grand Central. It is a stunningly beautiful and romantically staged fantasy sequence. Gilliam, ever the visualist, takes us from a subterranean hellscape, and then transports us to heaven.
Bursting with references to mythology and philosophy, The Fisher King is a romantic, sweet, and funny character drama, not afraid of flights of fantasy or journeys into extreme darkness. It is quintessential Gilliam, whilst also being one his least Gilliam-esque films.
I personally have a great affection for this film, and I’m delighted to see it get such a wonderful release from the Criterion Collection. Beautifully restored, the disc kicks things off with a director commentary recorded by Gilliam exclusively for Criterion back in 1991. There is a new two-part documentary, detailing the making of the film, with terrific and insightful interviews with the cast and crew, especially Linda Obst (producer) and Richard LaGravanese (writer) who give great insight into how this film came to be. It was a real passion project for Obst.
The disc also comes with a short feature about the creation of the “Red Knight” with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds, who designed the iconic look of that character. There is also a fantastic visual essay with Jeff Bridges, as he talks us through the photo journal he kept on the set. He apparently makes books for all the cast and crew of the photographs he takes on all of his films with his trusty Widelux camera.
Elsewhere on the disc is some behind the scenes footage of Bridges honing his shock-jock persona, on a fake radio show that he had to host for hours at a time. There is also an interview from 2006 with the late, great Robin Williams, discussing his experiences on the film, and his affection for Terry Gilliam.
To finish things off, there is some footage of the costume tests, revealing how the distinctive looks of the characters were created. There are also a selection of trailers, and deleted scenes. These cut scenes were specially selected by Terry Gilliam, and digitally transferred for quality. They are presented on the disc with surrounding footage from the completed film to keep it in context. Director commentary is also available for these scenes.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus