Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
Watch The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus online in the UK: Netflix UK
Only Terry Gilliam could pull this off. A fantastical feast of twisted visuals, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus has its director’s name all over it; it’s dark, demented, and – yes – had its usual share of difficulties. The central problem the film faced was, of course, the tragic passing of Heath Ledger – but as far as obstacles go, this one is surmounted by Gilliam with superb agility.
Casting Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law in the late Ledger’s place, Gilliam’s decision speaks volumes about his directing abilities; the adjustment to the line-up actually works better than a single actor might have. You see, Tony (Ledger) is a man with several faces. Turning up in London with a shady past, he inserts himself into a group of travelling players who wander the grimy streets, hoping to woo people with the power of imagination.
Leading the troupe and its rickshaw sideshow is Dr Parnassus (Plummer), a man of infinite stories and no wonder – he did a deal with Mr Nick (Waits) himself so that he could live forever. In exchange, he must give the devil his daughter, Valentina (Cole), when she comes of age. Anton (Garfield), lead actor and pseudo-son, looks on longingly at her, knowing nothing of Parnassus’s pact. When the time comes to honour the bargain, the band of performers resist, forced into a race against the dark side: the first to win five souls to their cause.
Amid it all, Tony schemes and plots, worming his way into women’s purses in exchange for a turn through the Imaginarium’s magic mirror. There, a vast and vivid CGI world greets them, each with their own version of Tony as their escort. It’s a neat setup, allowing for varied vistas and a dazzling blend of different mindscapes – a chance for the film-maker to flex his muscles.
Pursued by gangsters, Lucifer, and little old Anton, the fantasy soon descends into farce, conjuring up a frenetic energy, which never fails to fascinate. Plummer and Waits, too, make for a great pair of gravelly antagonists. But creativity and flair can’t make up for a poor script – muddled and jumbled, Gilliam’s overriding flaw arguably remains the same: he’s a great visionary, but (even with co-scripter Charles McKeown on board) not necessarily the world’s best writer.
Faustian deals are all well and good, but without a structure to bind it properly, The Imaginarium soon fades out of focus. The cast keep it clear as best they can – Lily Cole, in particular, is very good – but the blurry world of Gilliam’s mind is too cloudy, lacking the liveliness of Time Bandits or the dramatic punch of Brazil. (On the plus side, it’s better than Brothers Grimm.)
Flashes of brilliance light up the movie, but sentiment can’t save that scrambled script. Dedicated to Heath “from his friends”, it’s a touching tribute to a departed talent, but sadly struggles to be much more.
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.