Posted by: Paul | June 6, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I’m a big fan of Terry Gilliam. I say that with a bit of a caveat – not even the most ardent fan would say that any of his work is flawless, but he is a true original and none of his films look like anyone else’s – a Gilliam movie has a very specific look.

I finally got round to watching his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last night (on Blu-ray, no less), and while in the final analysis it’s another beautiful hotch-potch, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Dr Parnassus is a travelling storyteller, bringing with him a troupe of circus style performers and his ‘Imaginarium’ – anyone who enters is transported into their own wild fantasies, where what brings them ecstatic joy is made solid, and they ultimately make a choice between light and dark, heaven and hell.

However, Parnassus is in trouble. Throughout his thousand years of life – immortality was granted to him by ‘Mr Nick’ (the devil) after he beat him in a wager – Dr Parnassus has taken on one ill advised bet with his nemesis after another. But in three days time he stands to lose the apple of his eye, for the price for his everlasting life was the promise that on her sixteenth birthday, his daughter Valentina would belong to Mr Nick. In desperation he strikes one last deal – first to five souls wins.

This is the first story Gilliam has created from scratch since Baron Munchausen, and it shows in that both films share the same meandering, fanciful quality. It almost works – I think it’s probably too slow to get going and the end is a little bit of a damp squib, but it’s probably the closest Gilliam has ever come to realising his imagination on screen. And it is a story all about the imagination, and the flights of fancy the narrative darts off on at times are beautifully staged, with some vivid and eye catching CGI scenes.

But what Parnassus will probably be remembered for is being Heath Ledger’s final movie, and the fact that he died before filming was complete. Gilliam’s solution was to make Ledger’s character Tony’s journeys into the Imaginarium the point at which he switched actors, and into Ledger’s shoes step Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. It’s a neat idea, works well in the context of the movie, and was probably the only thing he could have done to salvage the project. Well done Terry – it’s not your best movie, but it is a very good movie, and a fitting coda to a life tragically cut short.

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