Terry Gilliam’s latest fantastical morality tale explores the power of the imagination to change and liberate. We’re back in familiar Gilliam territory; Brazil, Fisher King, Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits and Brothers Grimm (although it may be best not to mention that one).
We are introduced to the tacky travelling side-show of the mysterious Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a man who once won a bet with Mr. Nick, the Devil himself, now forced to travel the world seeking souls to bring to the light or condemn them to hell. Parnassus is an accomplished mystic, a soul guide. Stepping through his magic mirror into the imagination of Dr Parnassus reveals a person’s true nature and will either liberate or destroy them.
The ultimate prize, is the soul of the Doctor’s daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), the culmination of increasing high-stakes bets with Tom Waits’ urbane Mr. Nick. The Doctor’s protégées, foundling Anton (Andrew Garfield) and daughter rescue a hanged man from under Blackfriar’s Bridge, miraculously alive. This is missing charity con-artist Tony (Heath Ledger), who, it’s later revealed, didn’t hang willingly.
This is infamously the last movie by Heath Ledger who died before its’ completion. challenging Gilliam to rescue the movie in the absence of a leading man. There is no question it needs the continuity of a lead actor to complete the story arc, however, with acting mates Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell playing alternate facets of the character in several fantasy sequences, Gilliam pulls it part-melted from the pyre.
Parnassus gives us several discoveries. The always watchable Heath Ledger was off-form, rendering a poor London dodgy-geezer, not a great performance to end a career. Tom Waits, though, usually so full-on in movies, underplays the Devil beautifully; darkly comic, even sympathetic, a Loki-type trickster, subtly hinting of villainy. The luminous Lily Cole, does well and even holds the movie together in the absence of Ledger. It’s a difficult role for a first-timer with no acting experience, we’d like to think Gilliam channelled his energies to get such a great performance, as he’s not noted as an actor’s director.
Christopher Plummer plays the grand old man, part Prospero, part Lear, part Merlin. An ancient mystic, thousands of years old, suffers his loss of faith thanks to the intervention of the Devil himself. It’s a studied performance, using Plummers every trick in his actors playbook, admirable, yet somehow chilly and unsympathetic.
The biggest surprise, after Brothers Grimm, is how Gilliam won a big enough budget to secure Plummer and the ocean of CGI dream-scapes. You can see the production, though handsome, is still relatively inexpensive. Gilliam makes up for a lack of dollars with his extravagant and inventive imagination to rescue some sequences and indeed the whole movie, on Ledger’s death.
This is a more mature Gilliam, the character-driven scenes have deeper seriousness and poignancy. The problem, as always with Gilliam movies, the wild over-exuberant swings in tone and content. Always striving for magical realism, Parnassus suffers with the rest of the back catalogue, falling short of both.
Gilliam hmself is closest to Mr. Nick, the trickster, the joker; the mischevous auteur who would rather throw you a surprise thorn than a constant thread, always prepared to break the illusion for the sake of a good joke. His inspirational days in Monty Python are never far away; a chorus line of transvestite ballerina policemen undercuts the real threat of Russian mobsters and Gilliam can’t resist giving Farrell a Python line “he’s a very naughty boy” at the very height of Tony’s dramatic fall.
Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown (co-Oscar nominees with Tom Stoppard for Brazil) have produced a brilliant modern fairy tale, only to be de-railed by chance and by Gilliam’s own excesses. Undeterred by risk or past failures, Gilliam pours his courage into every scene and pushes on when other directors might cut and run. So it ever was. RC
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Certification: 12A / PG-13,
Runing time: 122 mins
Genre: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Colin Farrell, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer