The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Rating : PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.

Terry Gilliam is an artist. And like any artist, he stays true to his vision, no matter how extravagant or bizzare. And, as is the case with any artist’s work, we the audience, reserve the right to love it, or hate it, just as the artist reserves the right to not really care what we think. That’s how I’ve always pictured Terry Gilliam’s affair with cinema. Some might call it arrogance or self-sufficiency, but I wouldn’t go that far. His vision is sometimes so outrageous, that a second viewing would be out of the question for almost any viewer. I particularly felt this way when I saw his “Tideland” (2005), a movie that to this day I can’t be sure if I hated or loved, just that despite its originality, before the rising of Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”, I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again. On the other hand, he can only submit his will to his vision, so what I, or anyone else, thought of that particular movie, whether loved or despise, is completely irrelevant.

So, I was more than a little suspicious as I started watching “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. I was, of course, aware this was Heath Ledger’s very last (incomplete even) movie, and that Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law accepted to complete Ledger’s part, with the help of some very clever rewrites, so the first time Ledger appears on-screen, it felt extremely eerie. A feeling that could only serve a film like this.

Though bizzare in a very Gilliam kind of way, the story is actually surprisingly straight-forward. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal monk, who travels in a horse-driven sideshow caravan along with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) and his two aides, sharing the beauty of imagination to the world. He carries a terrible burden though, that of having gambled with the Devil (Tom Waits) and lost. The price is the soul of his daughter, which he must surrender to the prince of darkness on her 16th birthday. His luck seems to change when they encounter Tony (Heath Ledger), a charismatic swindler, just in time for a new wager with the Devil, which Parnassus hopes will save his daughter.

The gimmick of the story is the Imaginarium, a world which Parnassus can conjure, a world of dreams and imagination (with lots of help from a modern director’s best friend, CGI) tailored around the fabric of the person who enters it. The visual effects are a lot of fun, particularly because there’s a smart concept behind them. As a way to work around the fact that Ledger never finished his scenes, the script was altered so that whenever Tony enters the imaginarium, he appears as a different person each time (Depp, Farrell, Law), him being a swindler, thus a man of a thousand faces, none of them real. I would dare say the script works even better this way, though it is unfortunate that Ledger did not complete his work.

As far as Gilliam’s overall vision is concerned, I was expecting something wildly excentric, but as I mentioned before, the story, underneath the usual visual extravaganza and Oscar-nominated art direction, is quite pleasant and easy to sit through. It has the feel of a modern fairy tale and is a lot of fun to let yourelf carried away by it. The acting is top-notch, with Ledger apparently still bearing echoes of the Joker (little gestures and some line delivery). Plummer is particularly impressive, and after such a long carreer, it’s nice to see he’s still got it (he also nabbed an Oscar nom this year for The Last Station).

“The Imaginarium…” is great imaginative fun, full of everything that makes a movie a great thrilling ride. If from seeing the trailers you feel the movie is just too bizzare or just for kids, fear not, for this is Terry Gilliam’s most fun and easy movie, yet still creepy in a way that I don’t think children might enjoy.



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