The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Review
There have been several attempts on the part of studio executives to make Gilliam’s hyperactive imagination a little more palatable to a mainstream audience over the years, while at the same time reining in his profligate excesses with time and budget that often spiral out of control – often it must be admitted through acts of God that are not entirely the fault of the director (unless he has let down his side of the bargain in some Faustian pact – a not entirely implausible suggestion considering the content of his latest film). Such attempts at more mainstream fare – from The Fisher King to Twelve Monkeys have been relatively successful, while others such as The Brothers Grimm have not, but in all cases they have felt like a dilution of Gilliam’s undoubted talent as a visual artist, a quality that is restrained not only by the necessity of at least paying lip service to meeting timescales and budgets, but by also having to adhere to the notion of a plot.
For better or worse then, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a Terry Gilliam film in its purest sense – a throwback to the imaginative elaborate fantasy of his earliest work, particularly Brazil, and not just in the obvious sense of it being a troubled production (other than perhaps the rather underrated Tideland, which Gilliam film hasn’t had a troubled production?). Co-written by Charles McKeown, who worked previously with Gilliam on Brazil and just as significantly on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus bears all the hallmarks of their idea of a screenplay – a number of fabulous fantasy sequences strung together by the most tenuous of plots, usually involving the fabrication of stories, the living out of dreams or the distortion of reality by someone who desperately wants to escape from it.
Here, it’s a mystic old gentleman, Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who is the conduit for people to escape from everyday reality and live their dreams. With his travelling sideshow that includes his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) and little-guy Percy (Verne Troyer), Parnassus travels across the land, putting on little shows to draw in unsuspecting passers-by, taking them through a mirror into a land where all their dreams, and sometimes their nightmares, are realised. Inevitably, all is not entirely as it seems and there’s a price to be paid for such specialist entertainment, since the ancient Parnassus has been doomed to roam the Earth as part of a pact, gathering souls for the devilish Mr Nick (Tom Waits).
Parnassus however has made another foolhardy bet with Mr Nick, one that could either see him finally released from his burden or lose him the most precious thing in his miserable perpetual existence. Business however is slowing down, the attractions of the ancient old-fashioned sideshow, particularly in modern-day London where they are currently touring, proving to be no match for the other attractions of pubs, clubs and shopping. The sideshow however has picked up another crew member, Tony (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac found hanging under Tower Bridge, who has a few ideas for revamping the show that might perhaps bring them in the few punters necessary before the night is out. Tony’s identity problem and his attachment to Valentina (much to Anton’s displeasure), has the potential however to cause serious conflict of vision in the Imaginarium.
In the case of Gilliam and McKeown’s most successful venture into such fantastical realms, Brazil, the writers were fortunate enough to have someone like Tom Stoppard give the screenplay a thorough working over, pulling it together into some semblance of coherence, or at least giving it some kind of structure of a beginning, a middle and an end (and an end, and another end). In the case of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there’s a definite sense of winging it – some of the dialogues seem clearly improvised, others are mumbled and lost, just filling in space until the time comes for the next great set piece in a rather jumbled film. That’s perhaps just a little unfair, as the film is so rich in imagery with great characters and delightful, sometimes captivating performances by all the principals – Christopher Plummer in particular giving the film some much needed gravity – that it doesn’t really need any conventional plot development.
Taking the death of Heath Ledger in his stride, it’s almost inevitable then that it’s the making of the film that becomes the film. It’s not too difficult to see something of Gilliam in Dr Parnassus’ dated sideshow spinning of tales of the imagination, nor is it stretching things to see something of the director’s relationship with the film industry in his pact with Mr Nick and his demands that he keep to the terms of his contract, or even see the audience in the limited imaginations of those participants who settle for the mundane over the inventive. There’s something of Terry Gilliam also in Heath Ledger’s performance, a clever spin merchant, unsure of his identity within this wonderful imaginarium of the film industry, but capable of drawing on huge bankable attractive stars like Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to lure the public into his highly individualistic view of the world, that might otherwise prove elusive to the securing of a large enough audience. Its uncompromising length and its rambling barely comprehensible plot certainly failed to retain a few unsuspecting punters drawn out of curiosity to see Heath Ledger’s final performance at the screening I attended.
Inevitably considering the loss of the film’s star mid-way through the production, there’s going to be a great deal of disappointment between the idea of what might-have-been and its compromised realisation. While it’s disappointing not to be able to see how much more Ledger could have brought to his role, and his performance at this key stage in his career must therefore be considered a tantalising might-have-been, it scarcely affects the integrity of Gilliam’s vision, which against the odds makes its way pretty much intact to the screen in a state as pure to the director's intent as anything he has achieved in his career. Flawed though that vision may be and largely unsuited for the consumption of a more mainstream cinema audience, there’s much here to delight and entertain and perhaps even more levels and layers to be revealed in subsequent viewings.