The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus **½
Terry Gilliam is a cursed movie director for whom things always seem to go wrong – production on his Don Quixote film collapsed completely with the film failing to get made, he experienced so much stress while filming Brazil that he temporarily lost the use of his legs and creative control of The Brothers Grimm was usurped from him by studio executives who retooled the film so much so that it apparently bore little resemblance to what he had intended. And now this list of catastrophes plaguing Gilliam’s movies has gotten longer still with the tragic death of Heath Ledger during production of Gilliam’s latest film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ironically, though, Ledger’s death has helped to transform a film that may well have passed by overlooked into a much talked about feature, albeit one that is possibly much talked about for the wrong reasons. After all, prior to his death, Ledger was hardly a much talked about star yet now, particularly after his sensational performance in The Dark Knight, there is much interest in his performance here but not so much for reasons as of its quality, rather simply that it is his final performance. The tragedy apparently hasn’t been a complete catastrophe for the film though as Ledger’s unfinished scenes have been completed by the trio of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as a tribute to his memory (a dedication at the end of the film also reads “A film from Heath Ledger & Friends”), something that, thanks to the involvement of a magic mirror in the film’s plot supposedly seems as though it were meant to be the whole time. Whatever the case, however, so much focus has been put on Ledger that Gilliam has almost been excluded from the equation and considering his somewhat lacklustre track record as of late there is a much more important question surrounding the film that the one about whether Heath Ledger has saved his best performance to last – is this a return to form for Gilliam, another disappointment or, like many of his other films, a work whose appreciation will very much depend on who’s watching?
The extraordinary Imaginarium is a travelling show where members of the audience get an irresistible opportunity to experience their imaginations for real, choosing between light and joy or darkness and gloom. Blessed with the extraordinary gift of guiding the imaginations of others, Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is cursed with a dark secret. Long ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Many centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his first-born reached its 16th birthday he or she would become the property of Mr Nick. Valentina (Lily Cole) is now rapidly approaching this ‘coming of age’ milestone and Dr Parnassus is desperate to protect her from her impending fate. Mr Nick arrives to collect but, always keen to make a bet, renegotiates the wager. Now the winner of Valentina will be determined by whoever seduces the first five souls. With the help of his fellow artists Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer) as well as Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell), a mysterious stranger with a dark past, Dr Parnassus attempts to save his daughter from the cruel grasp of Mr Nick. In a captivating, explosive and wonderfully imaginative race against time, Dr Parnassus must fight to save his daughter in a never-ending landscape of surreal obstacles – and undo the mistakes of his past once and for all…
As much of the hype surrounding The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus revolves around Heath Ledger I will start by talking about his performance here. I really hate to speak ill of the dead but Ledger has undoubtedly NOT saved the best to last and following his truly amazing performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight everything about his performance in this film is a huge let down . His performance as Tony (he’s not playing the eponymous Dr Parnassus despite seemingly being at the centre of the film, at least in the marketing) may have a degree of charisma (as do Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) but it really doesn’t seem like he actually threw himself into the role. His attempt at a London accent is pitiful, with it not seeming like he even attempted to cover up his native Australian dialect, and he just seem to have put enough passion into the performance. Some of his failings are actually shared by some of the other actors playing the part of Tony in some of the film’s fantastical sequences. Colin Farrell too doesn’t make any apparent effort to hide his native accent, his Irish coming through clearly, despite having shown on many occasions that he is capable of doing other accents competently. In fact, only Johnny Deep really shines being truly electric in his all too brief time on screen. As for the other roles, Christopher Plummer is also somewhat underwhelming as Dr Parnassus, Verne Troyer is amusing in a somewhat undemanding role and Tom Waits amusingly hams it up as The Devil. There is one revelation among the cast, though, in the form of Lily Cole, who shows that she definitely has what it takes to make the transition from model to actress with a genuinely quite impressive performance. It’s just disappointing that the entire cast couldn’t have put the same level of effort in as she clearly has. In other regards the film is also a very mixed bag. The storyline is overly complex, confusing, incoherent and contrived and the film definitely outstays its welcome, with a definite sense that it could easily have been cut down without losing anything particularly important. Its mixture of humour with a seriously dark streak often fails to really gel and there is too much contract between the fantastical sequences, in which the film does impress, and the real world scenes which often drag on past their welcome. In particular a subplot surrounding Tony’s corrupt past seems like a significant distraction, shifting the focus towards the character of Tony when really it should be Dr Parnassus at the centre of the story. While the film may be lacking in the story department, however, visually it dazzles with scenes of spectacular beauty and bizarreness quite unlike anything you will have seen before. The film showcases a seriously freaky fantasy world that probably only Gilliam could conceive and its effectiveness and originality is heightened thanks to a rather low-tech approach (the magic mirror is made out of foil for example) that gives the film a distinct charm. These visuals save what would otherwise be a very poor film and in spite of the many failings of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus they provide a reason that really makes it worth seeing. Overall, though, this is a film that may just be too strange for its own good.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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