The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

14 Dec

Director: Terry Gilliam (2009)

Set in present day, a sideshow troupe spend their evenings entertaining the drunken masses of London town, promising an escape into the an imaginary world through the infamous Imaginarium, as commanded and created by Doctor Parnassus and his elaborate mind. Needless to say business is not thriving. The problem is, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his beard are a little behind the times. With over one thousand years under his belt and a deal with the Devil or rather Mr Nick, played by the effortlessly evil yet disturbingly seductive Tom Waits, ready to cash in, he is in something of a quandary. After falling in love with a mortal woman, Parnassus made a deal with Mr Nick to swap immortality for youth, promising his first child to Mr Nick once they reached their 16th birthday. Valentina (the beautiful Lily Cole) will be celebrating her birthday in a matter of days. In a last ditch attempt to stop Mr Nick claiming his prize, Parnassus makes another bet setting a challenge that whoever can seduce five souls into the Imaginarium wins Valentina.

An exciting enough story, right? And the placement of such a traditional and fantastical story in present day London is something I always wish more directors did in fantasty films. It’s just a shame that all this back story is somehow swept under a carpet of unnecessary dialogue and revealed way too late along the line for us to actually care about the bet. Why did Doctor Parnassus make the first bet? Why was this woman so wonderful he would give away his first child? We are only ever really given the faintest sprinkling of background. Yes, it is a film based on imagination and the power of thought but…we need something to imagine.

The main action begins when the troupe rescue a hanging man from under a bridge, Tony (Heath Ledger). Suffering from amnesia, the hapless troupe welcome him to the fold, for some namely Anton (the charming Andrew Garfield) and lover-from-afar of Valentina, more reluctantly. Using his wit and astonishingly good looks, Tony helps the gang seduce women through the mirror into the Imaginarium to help Parnassus get his soul tally up. Only it turns out Tony hadn’t hung himself as first thought and has a fair few skeletons hiding in his imagination…

The concept of the imaginarium is surreal and beautiful, the idea that the space changes to reflect the attitude and imaginings of its occupant. Trippy and downright bizarre, the scenes in which Tony enters the imaginarium and manifests as one of Hollywood’s premiere leading men including Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell, are certainly entertaining. But only really as stand alone pieces of cinema. My main problem was that the film is just too fragmented. There is too much and too little going on simultaneously. If that makes any sense. Which it doesn’t. Which is exactly my point!

I love Terry Gilliam dearly. I was raised on Monty Python as a child and as such have developed the necessary surreal and cracked out mindset with which to view the world and more specifically, to enter Gilliam’s world. But something was just not there this time. Story wise Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a wonderful creative experiment, but as a sustainable narrative it was sadly distinctly lacking. Much of the success the film enjoyed is arguably due to the devastating death of Heath Ledger mid-filming. I am glad Gilliam didn’t cancel the film – Ledger truly is a star in the film…if we ignore his suspect English accent. And the decision to present Tony in different personas in his Imaginarium visits is fantastic, reflecting the life of lies that has so consumed him; he can no longer recognise the ‘real’ Tony. Thankfully Valentina can, throwing in a token love story for good measure. The fact she is barely sixteen seems to be hastily brushed over….

Perhaps it is just a film that deserves a second viewing. And I am confident my love affair with Terry Gilliam, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp – basically everyone involved in this film – still seduces me to enter into the Imaginarium one more time before condemning it to the bottom shelf of my DVD collection…

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