Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
By Shalimar Sahota
December 6, 2009
Directed by – Terry Gilliam
Starring – Christopher Plummer (Doctor Parnassus), Heath Ledger (Tony Shepherd), Lily Cole (Valentina), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Verne Troyer (Percy), Tom Waits (Mr Nick), Johnny Depp (Tony 1st transformation), Jude Law (Tony 2nd transformation), Colin Farrell (Tony 3rd transformation)
Length – 122 minutes
Cert – 12A / PG-13
Let's get this out of the way first. It seems clear that many will view this simply to see Heath Ledger's final performance. There's a morbid ‘lets-see-how-much-money-we-can-make-out-of-the-dead-guy' feeling attached here (see also Michael Jackson's This Is It). UK distributor Lionsgate milked it for as much as they could. Sony Pictures Classics has acquired it for the US. Director Terry Gilliam is not concerned, saying that people will come, "because we got a freak show here."
Dr Parnassus (Plummer) is the lead in a unique traveling show, where members of the audience are transported to the 'Imaginarium', a strange world concocted from their inner thoughts. His daughter Valentina (Cole) also performs in the show, as does dwarf Percy (Troyer), and good friend Anton (Garfield). Parnassus also happens to be immortal, having long ago made a deal with the devil, Mr Nick (Waits). Of course no good can come from deals with the devil, since they always have a downside. Parnassus's involves his daughter, for when she reaches the age of 16, she will belong to Mr Nick. Valentina's birthday is just three days away. She also (bizarrely) reminds the audience that 16 is the age of consent (in the UK). However, Mr Nick offers Parnassus a bet that could potentially save her. Also, one night Anton and Valentina help rescue Tony (Ledger), finding him close to death. Upon realising their plight, he just might be the answer to their problems.
There is something alluring about an old age Victorian show, performing in modern day London, fused with out-of-this-world visuals. Gilliam revealed that the creation of the film came after he rummaged through his ‘archive' of unused ideas. Even though these ideas have resulted in a film, it still comes across as a bunch of great ideas, barely contained, and sometimes barely connected. Gilliam revealed that, "The film isn't exactly the film we set out to make. It might be a better one for it." With this in mind, it makes one wonder what exactly his intended film could have been. It's as if Ledger's passing has only spurred Gilliam on with his creative juices, and he's most likely crafted a much better film.
The film is pressured with all eyes on Ledger, and unfortunately there is nothing standout about his performance, since he's merely making the best out of a ridiculous character. As an amnesiac, Tony has no recollection as to who he is, though once it all comes back to him and he discovers why he was close to death, it just turns out to be plain stupid. It barely even registers after it's all over. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell play Tony as he steps into the imaginarium, with Farrell receiving an almost unfair amount of screen time.
Waits as Mr Nick steals every scene he's in. The devil he plays likes to have a bit of fun (he has a picture of Christ). However this must be one of the most unusually sympathetic portrayals of the devil in any film. Mr Nick has moments of menace, yet his relationship with Parnassus borders upon the compassionate, offering him the chance to save his daughter, twice! Why would he make a deal if he were to go back on it by offering such opportunities? That he enjoys making a bet is a senseless excuse.
The imaginarium concept means that visually there are no limits, so anything is possible. It also means that what is essentially on offer is a pure style over substance film, essentially an open canvas for all sorts of craziness. It's very similar to Tarsem Singh's The Cell in that way.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fails with a ridiculous mish-mash of a final act, making it confusing to work out whether it's Mr Nick or Parnassus winning whatever they might be playing at. Even if a tad overlong, to its credit it's never boring and simply wondrous to look at, making it worth a watch for whenever a character steps through to the imaginarium. Also, having reached a point where many would stop and give up, something Gilliam has done before (see Lost in La Mancha about his doomed Don Quixote project), it's incredibly brave and gutsy for him to carry on. To re-write the movie and have it still (just about) work is a remarkable feat in itself.