Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam | 122 minutes | adventure, fantasy | Actors: Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Carrie Genzel, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Quinn Lord, Michael Jonsson, Johnny Harris, Michael Eklund, Paloma Faith, Mark Benton, Ryan Grantham, Brad Dryborough, Simon Day, Mackenzie Gray, Ian A. Wallace, Richard Riddell

It’s every filmmaker’s nightmare: losing your protagonist halfway through the shoot. It happened to Terry Gilliam: during the shooting of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009), actor Heath Ledger died of an overdose of drugs. The first reaction of the shaken director was to cancel the entire project, but the people around him urged him to continue. Gilliam and his crew had to come up with something quickly because the lion’s share of shooting was over and it would be a shame if all that work had been in vain. Various tricks have already been used in the past to compensate for the loss of a central character. Brandon Lee, who was accidentally shot while shooting “The Crow” (1994) and died on the spot, was “brought back to life” through edited older footage to complete the film. Oliver Reed, who died of a heart attack during the shooting of “Gladiator” (2000), was hastily sought a replacement. Reed’s face was mounted on the body of the stand-in using CGI. Gilliam decided to take it all on, however. By adjusting the script a bit, he was able to put other actors in as a replacement for Ledger. Lucky in an accident, because it turns out surprisingly well.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” tells the story of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his remarkable “Imaginarium,” an itinerant show that offers audiences the irresistible opportunity to plunge into their own fantasy world. While Parnassus is on the one hand blessed with the ability to direct the imaginations of others, he also carries the curse of a dark secret. Thousands of years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), which won him immortality. Centuries later, when he bumped into the love of his life, he made another pact with the devil, trading his immortality for youth. The condition was that as soon as his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) turns sixteen, he must give her to the devil. With Valentina’s sixteenth birthday rapidly approaching, Doctor Parnassus is desperate to protect her from her terrible fate. However, he has not lost his urge to take a gamble and when Mr. Nick comes by to pick up his “property,” the two make another bet. Whoever wins five souls first gets Valentina.

Doctor Parnassus promises the hand of his daughter to those who help him to those five souls. An important candidate is Anton (Andrew Garfield), a good-natured former circus servant who has worked for Parnassus for years. He faces opposition from the mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger), who found the itinerant “circus Parnassus” hanging under a London bridge. Anton does not trust him at all, but Valentina and Parnassus are very charmed by him, especially when it turns out that he manages to lure many people to the imaginarium. However, scammer Tony turns out to have multiple faces (not just literally!), As shown when he steps through Parnassus’ magic mirror and has to deal with his own enemies in his fantasy world.

Gilliam called on some of Heath Ledger’s best friends – Jude Law and Colin Farrell – and his own buddy Johnny Depp to each personify an aspect of Tony’s personality. That could have gone wrong, but Gilliam lets everything flow smoothly, making it all look very natural. Everyone who steps through the magic mirror always gets a different appearance and Tony ends up in the fantasy world no less than three times. Terry Gilliam, who is reunited for this film with his co-writer Charles McKeown, with whom he made ‘Brazil’ (1985), among other things, is on an old-fashioned basis. He treats his audience to wonderfully fantastic sets, delectable surreal storylines, bizarre and mysterious characters and immense creativity. Although the story is not always coherent, as a viewer you are nevertheless taken to a magical fantasy world. Parnassus could be seen as the director’s alter ego: a man who preaches to his audience that they believe in the power of the imagination. Parnassus may also feel as underappreciated as Gilliam, whose films don’t always deliver the desired commercial success. With “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, however, Gilliam could again score well at the box office for years,

Many want to see Heath Ledger’s last performance.

Ledger may be the main crowd puller, his slightly absent contribution (Tony absolutely lacks the flair of The Joker, Ledger’s most memorable role) is almost nothing compared to the fantastic Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, an introverted old man who is struggling with a drinking and gambling problem and a feeling of guilt towards his daughter. Fashion model Lily Cole is promising as Valentina, the young woman who is the stakes of all kinds of bets. Andrew Garfield and Verne Troyer (as Parnassus’ loyal, cynical assistant) are solid. The illustrious Depp-Law-Farrell trio are doing very well. While Farrell has the most screentime, it is Depp who manages to put his own stamp on the role the most.

Visually, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” – like so many Gilliam films – is worth putting through a ring. The effects, sets and decoration are all equally beautiful. The story is strange and at times hard to follow, but the visual splendor that the director presents to his audience makes up for much, if not everything. It took a long time for Gilliam to come up with another film that rivals “Brazil” (1985), but now he’s getting pretty close. His ambitions are often too ambitious, which quickly turns into chaos. “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is far from straightforward, but could finally deliver much-needed commercial success for Gilliam. Because an imaginative opus like this definitely deserves a big audience – and not just because it’s the last chance to see Heath Ledger in action.

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