wed 17/07/2024

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus | reviews, news & interviews

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Brilliance and bathos in Gilliam's latest

Heath Ledger's final role

Terry Gilliam set toupees a-flutter with a feisty piece in the Sunday Times about the pandemonium surrounding the release of his new film, firing off broadsides at Tracey Emin and gossips who spread malicious rumours about the late Heath Ledger, and deploring the bureaucratic bloat which he reckons has capsized the BBC. “I’m good at being angry – it’s an occupation,” he growled.

It was reminiscent of the younger Gilliam who masterminded his own school of satirical collage with Monty Python, when weekly deadlines forced him to run on boiling adrenalin. But it’s a shame a bit more of this furious focus didn’t find its way into The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which finally hits the screens looking a bit like something that got left out in the rain by Steptoe & Son.

heathMind you, that’s part of the point, since Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the infinitely ancient impresario of a travelling show that creaks around a decrepit-looking south London in a ramshackle circus caravan. Though he is frequently drunk and burdened by the weariness of the ages, Parnassus (once a mystic of great renown) possesses the gift of being able to coax his customers through a mirror and fire them into fantastical universes, as if giving their imaginations a million-watt jump start. One sequence creates a blue underwater world full of giant water-lilies and enormous women’s shoes, while another finds characters striding across an infinite landscape on mile-high stilts.

Parnassus himself gazes down from a lofty plateau at what seems to be the entire earth rolled out beneath him, as he ponders over how to resolve the bind he finds himself in thanks to an aeons-old pact with the diabolical Mr Nick (Tom Waits).

Gilliam's visual stew of gaslit music hall, Victorian toy theatres, Tarot cards and all kinds of Eastern mysticism exerts its own pungent allure, often framed in wide-angle as if to mimic commemorative daguerrotypes. The film is a tumble-dryer of visual imagery and outsized characterisation, but its chaotic narrative is not made any clearer by Gilliam’s ploy of replacing Heath Ledger’s Tony (after Ledger’s death mid-production) with the stellar triumvirate of Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell.

However, behind the rainbow-coloured clutter, the bones of the plot are fairly meagre. Parnassus sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for immortality, then re-mortgaged it for youth so he could woo his true love, but only on condition that his daughter Valentina (the elfin Lily Cole) would become the property of Mr Nick on her 16th birthday. Now, Nick has come to collect, and Parnassus is desperate to keep him at bay.

The film is guaranteed some sort of status by virtue of including Ledger’s final screen performance (pictured above right, with Lily Cole), but Gilliam’s response to the actor's shocking demise was possibly a little too bravura for its own good. The novelty of seeing how cunningly Depp, Law or Farrell can be made to resemble Ledger is great fun at first, but it becomes little more than visual name-dropping, another distraction in a movie that's already crammed full of them. The producers insist that this emergency A-Team are "representative of the many aspects of the character that Heath was playing", to which we may chorus "yeah, right." In fact having Ledger's name on the marquee was probably more important than the character he plays, since he provides a love interest for Valentina but is only tenuously connected to the rest of the story.

But Gilliam scored big with his pivotal duo of Parnassus and Mr Nick. Cigar-sucking Tom Waits is deliciously sly and duplicitous, the way Colonel Tom Parker might be if you met him in hell. As for Plummer, he's pretty much the heart and soul of the enterprise. He knows he has nobody but himself to blame, but the prospect of losing his strange, bewitching child torments him, and his pain vibrates gently out to us from the screen.

Very late on, Gilliam pulls off a moment of stunning pathos when Parnassus is pressed up against the window of a restaurant, watching his daughter and her new family in a possible alternative future. Suddenly Parnassus is just a broken old man trying to survive on the street, and the whole story might have been a drunkard's feverish dream. Hey Terry, maybe you could flesh that out in the director's cut?

Opens this Friday

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