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The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (Festival Review)

  • Film
Imag 1.jpg

Time Out says

Reviewed at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival

Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an ageing but ageless impresario, thousands of years old, who runs a travelling theatre, a horse-drawn, rickety piece of Victoriana that he and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), company clown Anton (Andrew Garfield) and little man Percy (Verne Troyer) drive through the streets of an especially dismal and rainy modern London. When a rowdy, drunken Geordie storms the stage and falls through the mirror at its centre, we realise that this is no ordinary theatre: the mirror is an opportunity for characters to tumble into parallels worlds conceived by the director and writer team of Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, who previously worked together on ‘Brazil’, ‘Time Bandits’ and ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’

This fantasy land behind the mirror is forever changing: the landscape might one minute look like a Dali painting and the next like the most primary-coloured, pastoral of scenes where giant clay heads spread their long tongues over the landscapes or people walk on broken, huge ladders like stilts. You might also find tributes to those who died young, such as Rudolph Valentino, James Dean and Princess Diana – tributes that float sombrely down a river in boats. Back in London, the theatre troupe stumble across a strange character, Tony (Heath Ledger), the shady head of a children’s charity, who is hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in the middle of a suicide attempt. They release this mystery man, who with his white suit and ponytail has the air of a spiv, and allow him to join their troupe, so helping Parnassus with a wager he has with the devil (Tom Waits).

Who knows how Gilliam’s ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ would have turned out if Ledger had not died halfway through production? Certainly, Gilliam wouldn’t have had to introduce Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as various refractions of Ledger’s character halfway through the film, a device that works fairly well, not least because each of the actors try very hard, through costume, hair and gestures, to mirror the late actor. Some of the accompanying dialogue to explain these transformations is a bit awkward, but only the hardest of souls wouldn’t forgive this attempt to rescue something positive from a tragedy.

The real problem is that most of the film is a bit of a mess, even if you have to respect Gilliam’s untiring celebration of the imagination and his daring in taking his story down some wild and crazy roads that would have narrative purists tearing out their hair. At its worst, this is dressing-up-box cinema, scrappy and directionless, and some of the film’s lengthy, animated fantasy sections feel as improvised as its splurge of weak ideas, poor acting and uninspiring location work in London. It’s still intriguing, though, to see how Gilliam reacted, as a filmmaker, to Ledger’s death and, of course, to see Ledger in his final role. His performance isn’t one of his best and lacks some of the wild charisma of the Joker, say, in a role that could easily have been taken down such eccentric routes. His acting colleagues Depp, Law and Farrell all make the best of a bad job and both Garfield and Cole are intermittently exuberant if always appearing a little undirected.
Written by Dave Calhoun

Cast and crew

  • Director:Terry Gilliam
  • Screenwriter:Terry Gilliam
  • Cast:
    • Johnny Depp
    • Colin Farrell
    • Jude Law
    • Lily Cole
    • Tom Waits
    • Christopher Plummer
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