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London Film Festival ’09: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Directed by Terry Gilliam

A glance at the film posters could almost convince you that a new Harry Potter was upon us. The troubled final film of Heath Ledger prior to his premature death in February of last year has finally been released after a Herculean effort on the part of the perennially ill-fated Terry Gilliam and his dedicated cast and crew,  including a producer’s dream triumvirate of Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp, who all stepped forward to complete the various facets of Ledger’s screen swansong. The metaphoric links between the career history of the frantic ebullience of Terry Gilliam and a tale concerning an aged carnival barker traversing the dark streets of 21st century London proclaiming the wonders of his infinite imagination are not difficult to discern, but alas it pains me to say this is but one of those Gilliam projects where his fevered imagination has been permitted to spin out of control. Though there are moments and sequences to admire in The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus, ultimately this is an unwieldy, amorphous blob of a film. When a movie featuring Tom Waits as the devil fails to arrest your attention, you know it’s in trouble.


The plot is perhaps one of Gilliam’s most fantastical, and that’s saying something. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a mysterious magi who sold his soul 1,000 years ago to the devil in return for immortal life and a magical mirror – the titular Imaginarium – which leads patrons into an alternate dimensional representation of their dreams and desires, a hallucinatory experience that transforms their lives forever. Parnassus travels the world with his fanciful band of outcasts, including his 16-year-old daughter Valentina (model Lily Cole’s screen debut), clown Anton (Andrew Garfield) and vertically challenged Percy (Verne Troyer), who endure a peasant-like existence at the margins of society. The unkempt rogues stumble across a body hanging from London Bridge, the white-suited and mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger) who, after being cut down and saved from certain doom, soon falls under the spell of the traveling lifestyle whilst secretly harbouring a dark and sinister past. Meanwhile, Parnassus is in serious trouble as his contract with Old Nick is due to expire in three days, the price of which will be the immortal soul of his daughter – unless he can best the devil in a competition to save five mortal souls in his Imaginarium, subjects that Satan will be tempting to sin with guarantees of their darkest desires against Parnassus’ celebrations of human serenity, life and wonder.

imaginariumofdoctorp_02If you’re in the mood to wallow in visual spectacle, something as hollow as a recent Tim Burton movie, say, at the expense of all other considerations, then this is worth a cinema visit. If you’re looking for anything approaching a coherent story and plot, or a satisfactory conclusion to a tale well told, then you’d best look elsewhere. It’s another paean to Gilliam’s beloved notion of the transformative power of the imagination to bring light and joy to the world, a noble sentiment to be sure, but all Gilliam has constructed is a big, empty soufflé of a movie which while visually sumptuous is hollow and un-nourishing. When asked what mythological and legendary ideas Gilliam bought to the film during a recent London post-screening Q&A, his answer was quite revealing – all of them. Gilliam has thrown in unused and half-baked ideas from his previous realized and unrealized movies and the subsequent effect is alienating. There’s a shard of Faust with the Satanic contract, a sprinkling of biblical texts, smatterings of numerous elements of myth and lore all culminating in a finale reminiscent of Les Miserables, a coalescence which is more confusing than convincing.

imaginariumofdoctorp_03The trailer has done a great job of selling the movie as a sprawling, visual epic when in fact the project is much more restricted and modest on screen, with Gilliam’s meager funding being primarily channeled into the eye-catching fantasy sequences. Nevertheless, his keen eye ensures that the film’s various London locations are exploited for their mixture of history and antiquity; Gilliam’s understanding that a wrong left turn in Soho or the outskirts of the old London City can transport you back to the 16th century due to the texture and atmosphere of the locations which are steeped in layers of time prove useful. During the fantasy sequences the director’s prodigious imagination is allowed to run riot, which naturally results in the best and most memorable scenes of the movie. There is a very Pythonesque tone to the proceedings, with enormous stone effigies of talking policeman erupting from the ground, psychedelic landscapes of diamond encrusted shoes, elongated and ludicrously proportioned landscapes all assaulting your the audience’s cerebellum.


The substitution of Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp for the deceased Ledger are narratively sound and emerge for the most part organically from the story, conjured within the Imaginarium, however they do tend to wrench the viewer out of the film with diminishing consequences. Fortunately, most of the material shot of Heath in the ‘real’ world was completed prior to his death, which almost conveniently left his friends to step in for the fantasy sequences alone, wherein the surrogacy is digestible.

Reservations aside, one hopes the film will be successful and pillages the pocket money of the Potter brigade so that Gilliam can support his next project, be it the long gestating Good Omens adaption, or similarly cursed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Parnassus certainly has the best commercial possibilities of anything he’s made for years. A hesitant good luck to him.

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