The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Review

Posted: November 30, 2009 in Review
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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Review

A film by near-legendary filmmaker Terry Gilliam is a lot like eating out at an expensive restaurant – it doesn’t happen as often as you’d like and when it does you want to savour every exquisite moment.

Happily, this is one of those times where it’s absolutely well worth the wait and by the time the credits roll, you’ll be glad Gilliam stuck with the film through all the troubles on set – the death of star Heath Ledger, the death of producer William Vince and Gilliam himself breaking his back in a traffic accident. It really is a film that struggled against all the odds just to get made – and that makes this even more special.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is in a bind. He’s a gambling addict with one huge problem – the man he keeps making bets with is none other than Mr Nick, the devil himself (the sublime Tom Waits), and now he has come to collect the fee for his latest gambit – Parnassus’ own daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). However, the devil decides to up the stakes one last time: if Parnassus can win over five souls through the Imaginarium before the devil can claim them, she can go free.

Complicating this task are the members of the Imaginarium’s travelling troupe – dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer) is becoming frustrated with Parnassus’ heavy drinking, while Valentina is blind to affections of sleight-of-hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield). Adding to this is the sudden arrival of amnesiac assault victim Tony (Heath Ledger), a man who may or may not decide the fate of the entire group.

It would be foolish to say that Ledger’s performance is as remarkable or as incredible as his portrayal of the Joker. Instead, it is simply as enjoyable as all the other characters on screen, each one as deep, as complex and beautifully drawn as most whole protagonists and all deserving of their own film. It is disappointing to note that the only three scenes Ledger did not get to finish are the most important three his character has in the film. Thankfully the always reliable Johnny Depp, the wonderful Colin Farrell and the passable Jude Law step in, adding another dimension onto Tony’s fractured character.

Like going through the Imaginarium’s door, delving beneath the surface of the film reveals far more than what at first seems so straightforward. Parnassus is a representation of Gilliam, a man desperate to tell the world amazing stories, while Mr Nick is the Hollywood studios – constantly interfering and influencing the tales in a different way. It’s an ensemble piece of the greatest variety; the titular Imaginarium – a horse-drawn double-decker carriage – is possibly the closest thing to a protagonist, a storyteller in a world that simply doesn’t care for its own imagination anymore.

Add to this some of the most incredible CGI visuals in recent cinema history and a film so heaving with imagination it’s in danger of collapsing under the weight of its scope. The only real criticism to be made is that the final twenty minutes feel slightly dragged out, as if Gilliam couldn’t bear to finish a film that cost two and a half people to make.

Wonderful, spellbinding, intoxicating. Take a dip in Gilliam’s mind once more, but be warned – this time you might not want to come out.

5 stars

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