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May 2010

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, Lily Cole, and Verne Troyer

director: Terry Gilliam

123 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

The story behind the film is almost as involving as the on-screen events. A fantasmagorium of oddities, Terry Gilliam's history is littered with strangeness. Even when his projects fail they do so with such luminous results that there's never anything there that's not worth your consideration. Personally, I loved the audacious invention of his The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988) as much as I did the ludicrous excess of his Monty Python inserts. The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus combines all the best bits and the flawed bits of his r�sum�, with all that ambition that somehow doesn't consistently come together, or works only sporadically, but with levels of aspiration worth dump-bins full-to-overflowing with the dull bean-counter dumbness that vomits from all those focus-group fine-tuned big-studio products.

Dr Parnassus brings together a lot of classic fantasy elements. The obvious Faust myth in which the good Doctor (Christopher Plummer) has bartered his soul to Mr Nick (Tom Waits) in return for longevity, with the added rider of handing over his daughter Valentina (the scrumptious Lily Cole) the moment she comes of age, with a further game aspect in which Parnassus and Mr Nick compete in a harvest of souls to reclaim her. Parnassus is "as old as time" boasts Anton, "as old as the universe itself." Anton (Andrew Garfield) is another part of the Parnassus travelling carnival of freaks, which is further gimmicked with a magical Narnia portal into a kind of personalised CGI fantasia which adapts to individual greeds, kinks and quirks.

The visual extravagance and gimcrack hocus-pocus ingenuity only occurs when people pass through the mirror, amplified by Parnassus' trance-state mental powers. But, "we don't play" he warns, "what we do is deadly serious." There may be vast interplanetary jellyfish. There may be a hot-air balloon made up of a cranium like a Monty Python animated collage. But each interior world also reflects the mindset of the Imaginarium intruder.

To Gilliam, the film is a 'compendium' of playful bits, written with Charles McKeown, his collaborator on Brazil (1985), and Baron Munchausen. Typically, Gilliam's idea of playful has the Parnassus caravan moving like the pirate office-blocks in Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life (1983), a "strange oversized wagon... that opens out like a dolls-house" moving through London's gritty dereliction of garbage and rough-sleepers. It's an eccentric vaudevillian intrusion from a gentler age into today's binge-drinking, clubbing, drably hostile moron-o-sphere.

Or maybe it's a throwback to the garishly-lit Victorian London where opulence and squalor also co-existed? The diverse troupe rescue a hanged man found dangling beneath Backfriars Bridge - as predicted by a tarot card. Tony (Heath Ledger) is a man with no past, who faked his own hanging, protected from asphyxiation by a slim metal pipe part-swallowed into his throat. He accepts the hospitality of the Imaginarium; then renovates and moves its down-at-heel spectacle up-market, taking it from performances in a Homebase car-park to attracting wealthy consumers in a chic mall.

It's around this point that the plot-weirdness overlaps into reality, when Heath Ledger inconveniently died in mid-production. Although I don't really buy into the instant deification posthumously slapped on Ledger, Gilliam's surreal solution was to draft in not only Johnny Depp, but Jude Law, and Colin Farrell as stand-ins too, which proves not as confusing as it sounds. It turns out that prior to his faked suicide Tony operated as a charity swindler in a white suit, a celebrity campaigner who was covertly trading the black-market organs of third world children, and is now being pursued by the Russian mafiosi he's ripped off. This is when the various Heath Ledger stand-ins first become manifest.

Passing through into an Imaginarium mall-shopper's consumerist wonderland of giant shoes and perfumes, the Johnny Depp 'Tony' cautiously scrutinises his own face in the mirror, as though to check his identity, in a knowing double-take to movie-goers. Then Jude Law's 'Tony' is a power-of-positive-thinking con-salesman whose face-change fools his Russian gangster pursuers who have also blundered in after him. In a further in-joke Anton refuses to recognise Tony's new face too. And all the while Tom Waits, as Mephistophelian Mr Nick, intrudes with his bear-voice and low-rent charisma.

At one point he appears as a giant viscous serpent. Not that he's actually evil. "Damn, I've won," he sighs as he successfully harvests his fifth soul. It's as though he's merely using his demonic powers to inflict wagers that relieve the boredom of eternity, with Parnassus as a usefully worthy antagonist. So he proposes a new wager in which the Doctor can win back his daughter, which leads the meandering plot into a beautiful continuity loop.

But Terry Gilliam litters his tale with more strangeness, and along the way there is satire. A cover-story for The Sun reveals the truth about Tony - 'Tony Liar', which is surely a nudge at the 'Tony Bliar' Iraq-protest slogan? While Gilliam's lyrics to 'We Are The Children Of The World' (now available as a ring-tone), neatly spoofs Michael Jackson's benevolent pretensions. And there's a grotesque dance routine by camp policemen - 'Join the Fuzz - we love violence' which echoes the Python's 'Lumberjack Song'.

But if there's a moral to this fantasmagorium of oddities, and there is, it lies in advocating the power of imagination, even when that power is assailed from all sides by drab profit-focused materialism. It is stories that make us human. If stories cease, the universe will end. "You can't stop stories being told," Parnassus insists. And Gilliam extends his message outwards, because stories are being told everywhere. Be it oral fiction, movie escapism, epic myth, comicbook exploits, ripping tales, fantastic literature, or novels.

The best bits of Terry Gilliam's films are a vindication of the power of imagination. In what might be an added reference to Heath Ledger, but is also relevant to the entire 20th century pantheon of iconic figures, a procession of funeral barges float by within the Imaginarium: Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, Princess Di, all dead - but immortal. "Forever young"...

DVD extras: Heath Ledger & Friends featurette, Heath Ledger interview, The Imaginarium Of Terry Gilliam featurette, deleted scenes, UK premiere featurette, Building The Monastery featurette, commentary track.

Premonitions in paperback - click to order

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