The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Terry Gilliam is getting a reputation as man whose ambitious projects struggle to come to fruition. This tale of a mysterious storyteller who makes his living with an old fashioned show and is both lifted and threatened by his own imagination is full of ironies. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a man so full of dreams that he cannot resist making bets. A series of wagers with the Devil (a lugubrious Tom Waits) has given him eternal life but now threatens to cost him his beautiful daughter Valentina. That is, unless the arrival of a mysterious stranger can turn his fortunes around.

This stranger is played, in his early scenes, by the late Heath Ledger, and Ledger's death halfway through filming led everyone to think that the film would be abandoned. Fortunately the persistence of Terry Gilliam's own daughter Amy (one of the film's producers) and the devotion to Ledger of his friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell led to its salvation, with each actor in turn taking over Ledger's role as he travels through a series of magic mirrors.


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The story has been partly rewritten to accommodate this, with just enough jokes about it to entertain without trying viewers' patience, and it works well, adding an extra dimension to a plot structured around imagination, fantasy and deception. Though this isn't Ledger at his very best he establishes the character well and it's an affecting send-off, leaving him to wander in the world of shared dreams that is cinema.

If the story of a stranger arriving to try to save a beautiful young woman sounds like a familiar fairytale, beware - this is Gilliam's work after all, and nothing is quite as it seems. Lily Cole makes the daughter a strong, complex character in her own right. She's a girl who has grown up with a travelling show but who dreams of shopping in Homebase and living in a nice suburban home; she's horrified at the notion of being used as a bargaining chip in her father's games. Likewise the stranger is a paradoxical individual, a man whose pursuit of goodness might have rather more to do with personal ambition, who might not have Parnassus' magic but certainly knows a trick or two. Rounding out the numbers are the Doctor's loyal assistant Percy (Gilliam regular Verne Troyer, who takes more abuse here than ever but has a sharp wit to defend himself with) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) as a young man who has no special talents but does have a good heart and is hopelessly in love with Valentina.

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As you would expect of a Gilliam film, no expense has been spared when it comes to the costumes and sets. There's a fantastic mountain monastery, all Buddhas and elephants, which we see for only five minutes, and there are numerous imagined worlds full of sinister cardboard trees, beer cans, Elysian fields and giant trees. There's an amazing scene with dancing policemen showing off their bums, giant heads explode out of the ground in direct homage to Monty Python, and fashionable middle class ladies fight over the opportunity to be seduced; but there's always a darkness there reminding us that what Parnassus is up to is really very disturbing indeed. Masks and elaborate make-up add to the layers of obfuscation, but the real genius here is in the portrayal of the modern world as a place equally remarkable - and the one place in which Parnassus really feels out of his depth. Amid these gleaming towers of glass and marble, is there still a place for an old man and his stories?

Let's hope so. Gilliam's stories, at any rate, are still going strong.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2009
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The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus packshot
A travelling show offers visitors the chance to choose between light and joy and darkness and doom.
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Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown

Starring: Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Carrie Genzel, Lily Cole, Cassandra Sawtell, Andrew Garfield, Quinn Lord, Michael Jonsson, Johnny Harris, Michael Eklund

Year: 2009

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: France, Canada, UK

Festivals:

SSFF 2009

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