January 10, 2010
Review - " The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus "
(in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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his troupe of assistants, all unaware of the dark forces in which Parnassus dabbles. By this time, though, Dr. Parnassus is on
his third stakes-raising bet with the devilish Mr. Nick, and the fate of Valentina herself is hanging in the balance. It seems that
maybe Tony may be the only one able to save her.
However quite atypically, especially for a fantasy film with a large number of special effects as this one, the lead character of
Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer, is an old OLD man. Imagine a Lord of the Rings with the Fellowship relegated to
supporting roles in a story that focuses closely on Gandalf’s exploits and you’ll get some idea. Dr. Parnassus is shown to
make some serious mistakes, moral missteps and grave errors of judgment that Gandalf would never have been permitted to
commit. He’s a most unlikely hero and is just what we need more of at the arrowhead of our narratives: a complex character
that doesn’t simply come straight off the peg.
Despite Plummer’s being the star of the film, the names
above the title are those of the four actors called upon
to play Tony. The late Heath Ledger, who initially had
been set to play the role entirely, completed all of the
film’s scenes set outside of the Imaginarium’s magic mirror.
To enable Gilliam to finish the film it was decided that
Tony would show a new face each time he passed through
the mirror into the realms of imagination. Johnny Depp,
Jude Law and Colin Farrel step in as the alternate version
of Heath when he is inside the Imaginarium/fantasy world.
Gilliam's ingenious solutions are what made completing
the film after Ledger’s untimely passing possible while still
maintaining the integrity of the film and its themes
absolutely. Director Gilliam has seamlessly and believably
made it plausible that these actors could in fact fill in where
Heath could not. In fact, Johnny, Jude and Colin do to
some degree look like different versions of Heath in the
movie. This changing face of Tony’s has become a
keystone in the overall construction of the film, which
belies how hard the reconfiguration must have been for
everyone involved in finishing the film.
The first transformation and the briefest of these ‘guest star’ scenes calls upon Gilliam’s friend Johnny Depp to play Tony at
his most endearing and lovely. Jude Law appears shortly afterwards as an aspirational Tony climbing for the clouds, before
the longest of the sequences employs Colin Farrell to finally show us the character’s true colours.
The casting throughout shows a similarly sure shot, hitting bullseye after bullseye, each of them perhaps more perfectly
chosen than the last: Lily Cole as a stroppy and bored yet coy young beauty, Christopher Plummer exhausted past the reach
of his own wisdom, and Tom Waits wearing the bowler hat and smoking the cigars of the Devil. Smaller roles are also well cast
with some of the best screen talent in Britain today.
However the film’s secret weapon is newcomer Andrew Garfield as Anton, Parnassus’ young showman who vies with Tony for
Valentina’s affections. His is a serious role and one of considerable size but far from being a part of the film’s public persona
or marketing. Garfield is all but absent from the trailer - yet in the actual picture, he’s a shining star capable of stealing scenes
left, right and centre, even right from under Ledger’s nose. The two have one particularly wonderful scene together in which
Anton teases and taunts Tony, with Anton for the first time winning the upper hand over his rival.
Actor Heath Ledger died halfway through the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and the fact that he enters the
picture with a noose around his neck is a sad accident - a brief intrusion of melancholic reality into a movie that is all fluffy
fantasy. Ledger is bittersweetly as watchable as he always was, and young Lily Cole has an intriguing shyness and a face like
a valentine. And the great Christopher Plummer — closing in on 80, and seemingly busier than ever — gives this dusty,
doddering magician all the great grandeur of Lear.
The look is inconsistent, with some touches truly original, some looking cheap and rushed, and others feeling recycled from
early “Monty Python” shows (the puffy landscapes, the giant constable’s helmet, the dancing policemen). Towards the end as
Tony’s forgotten past begins to come to light, the film starts to take on a number of cultural and political resonances. As Tony,
the amnesiac whose memory is slowly returning, Ledger helps ground the film with a raggedy charm, but the spell is broken
whenever Tony steps through the mirror and turns into another actor (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, in turn), a
brusque reminder of the truth beyond the screen. Gilliam does what he can, but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus never
becomes the transporting trip the movie was meant to be: Instead, it's a special effects-laden elegy.
Imaginarium lacks the focus and pacing of Gilliam's best films (Brazil, Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys), the sense that the movie is
actually going somewhere, and even many of its whimsical interludes into magical landscapes feel dull. A shot of a man
walking on stilts so tall his head is in the clouds makes for a lovely image, but Gilliam doesn't do anything with it, and the whole
movie is like that - free-floating, disconnected fancy.
Overall I am unsure what to think of this film. It left me
feeling a little ambivalent. I think many people will watch
this movie uncertain of what to expect and some may
even leave bewildered. But this is 'The Imaginarium of
Dr Parnassus' a journey into the mind of uncertainty,
where life and death, Heaven and Hell are the
For Ledger fans, it’s a last chance to catch this odd,
internal actor again. “Nothing’s permanent,” someone
announces at one point in the film. “Not even death.”
And for a little while, here at least, Ledger lives on -
frozen in time, falsely happy and forever young.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, Andrew
Garfield, Lily Cole, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell
Early on in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the Devil comes to
town - except the Devil comes in the shape of Tom Waits, and the town
looks like a mad, pumped-up Shangri-la. The Devil’s aim is to stop the
mystic Parnassus from telling his stories, tales that literally make the
world go around. But Parnassus is defiant. “You can’t stop stories from
being told,” he declares.
To set the scene, Dr. Parnassus is an ancient and mysterious traveling
showman whose horse-drawn theatre presents something like a
Medieval Mystery Play. Setting up in unexpected areas, from shopping
malls to housing estates, Parnassus performs routinely to an audience
that doesn’t want to care and seems barely equipped to understand.
Among his band of players are his beguiling young daughter Valentina,
Anton, who fosters romantic feelings for her, and Percy, Parnasssus’
coachman, dwarf and holy fool. Very soon a fifth joins the troupe, in the
handsome, charming and mysterious, character of Tony (Heath
Indebted to Dr. Parnassus and company for saving his life, and with
little or no recollection of what that life was anyway, Tony becomes the
sideshow’s champion barker. Parnassus has made a secret bet with the
devil (Tom Waits), with the soul of his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily
Cole) hanging in the balance. She, along with two other travelers
(Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield) and the amnesiac (Ledger) form
In each of Gilliam’s three fully self-initiated projects so
far -Time Bandits, Brazil and this one - the story plays
out across two different realities. One is the ‘real’
reality, or at least reality as perceived by the characters
of the film, while the other is a realm of fantasy lurking
below or behind. In Time Bandits this is The Time of
Legends, in Brazil it is Sam’s dreamscape and here it is
the incredible, changing terrain of the mind as
accessed through the Imaginarium’s magic mirror.
Depending on who passes through and how their
imagination transforms this other world, we might be
taken into a dark quagmire littered with abandoned
beer bottles, a candy-coloured fantasia of designer-
labeled excess or a cartoon vista of Looney Tunes
ladders stretching impossibly into the sky. There are
plenty of things out of place, but they’re deliberately,
strikingly and effectively so.