In “The Fountain,” Darren Aronofsky’s masterful, moving symphony of romantic devotion, Hugh Jackman plays three different men — a 16thcentury conquistador, a modern-day cancer researcher and a space traveler — all poised at the cusp of loss, all prepared to penetrate the frontiers of science and spirituality to save their beloved.
Come to think of it, Aronofsky knows a thing or two about frontier penetration himself. On the heels of his mind-bending debut feature, “Pi” (1998), and his celebrated follow-up, the punishing addiction saga, “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), comes his most innovative work yet — a love story built around the inevitability of death.
Jackman (“X-Men”) proves he’s not just another squarejawed showman as Tom Creo, a brilliant surgeon and chemist dedicated to wiping out cancer (he has the surname to match his messianic aspirations: “Creo” is Latin for “I create”). Tom pushes his research team hard, and for good reason: Wife Izzy (Rachel Weisz) is dying from a brain tumor, and Tom has placed the onus of her survival squarely his own broad shoulders.
In the pages of the period novel that Izzy is penning on her deathbed, essentially the same drama is being played out. With 16th-century Spain overwhelmed by the malignant forces of the Inquisition, Queen Isabel (Weisz) summons the gallant knight Tomas (Jackman) to her throne. Inspired by the story of Eden in Genesis — and the testimony of her missionaries — Isabel dispatches Tomas to America to find the Tree of Life and end Spain’s bondage to the Vatican.
However brief, the appearance of Isabel’s Inquisitor nemesis (Stephen McHattie) lands the desired punch — this is cancer in human form, a selfflagellating, heretic-torturing personification of pure menace. Tomas’ confrontation with a Mayan high priest atop a ziggurat in the jungles of Latin America is also the stuff of supreme dread, staged amid the movie’s gothic set design.
In stunning contrast to the intensity of the other two stories is the final chord in Aronofsky’s progression, which finds a bald, beatific Tom hurtling through space in a transparent sphere, accompanied by a dying tree that we understand to be Izzy in some future, notquite-human form. Backlit by a constellation of stars while performing tai chi, Tom is not quite himself, either. Centuries have past, and he still hasn’t given up the fight.
Aronofsky is as much composer as filmmaker here, using images like refrains and choruses, and the result is transcendent, if deeply impressionistic. It’s Jackman, in a performance as genuine and heartfelt as any I’ve seen this year, who brings “The Fountain” back to Earth. In Tom’s anguish, vulnerability and blind determination, we find a fascinating and sympathetic hero, and a heretofore underrated actor who expresses him beautifully.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn
Rating: PG-13 (some intense sequences of violent action, some sensuality and profanity)
Running time: 96 minutes
Playing: Opens today in Valley theaters