Few will need reminding of the tragic circumstances surrounding this production. Terry Gilliam is a filmmaker who seems to flit from moments of cerebral magnificence to utter disaster, propelled by the catalysts of wild overindulgence and disastrous bad luck. Little, though, could have prepared him for the death of Heath Ledger halfway through the filming of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. After taking a break from the filming to recover his thoughts, Gilliam vowed to finish Parnassus as an epitaph to Ledger, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell gallantly stepping into the breach.
With a back-story so steeped in tragedy and inspirational resolve in the face of crushing adversity, the groundswell of support for Parnassus was huge. Everyone wanted it to do well, for it to be a slice of classic Gilliam and for Ledger to be remembered by an unfinished masterpiece of a performance laced by a tangible sense of loss.
It came as a crushing disappointment, then, when it soon became apparent that The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is none of those things. This wanders far too near incomprehensible shambles, a film that squanders its cannon of talent and showcases everything infuriating about Gilliam’s unique vision.
Opening with impressive gusto on late night revelry on London’s South Bank, Doctor Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) vaudeville pop-up theatre soon attracts the predicable attention of a particularly brash drunk, who, after trying to grope the Doctor’s daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), stumbles through the magic mirror that leads to the eponymous Imaginarium.
It turns out that the Imaginarium is a centuries old battleground between Parnassus and the Devil (the brilliantly cast Tom Waits), where the prize is people’s souls. Being the compulsive old gambler that he is, Parnassus has struck a shady bargain with the Devil over Valentina’s immortal essence, with the due date for collection, her sixteenth birthday, impending.
This is about as far as any plot synopsis can go, because, after this admittedly intriguing set-up, the film soon descends into thematic anarchy. Parnassus’ players, which also include Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield as the young illusionist Anton, then find Ledger, an enigmatic amnesic, hanging underneath London Bridge, apparently dead.
Ledger sets about modernising Parnasuss’ production, which leads to great success. However, the Doctor strikes another deal with the Devil (the ‘first to five souls’), and it is through Ledger’s various jaunts into the Imaginarium to help the Doctor win said souls that he turns into Depp, Law and Farrell. But is Ledger as contrite as he seems, or is he a bigger charlatan than even the Devil himself?
There is a certain autobiographical drift to Parnassus – the story of an aged raconteur at odds with the modern world, where the real scoundrels are often smooth talking wolves in sheep’s clothing. This was meant to be a liberating film, encapsulating all the Gilliam stylistic trademarks/stereotypes (delete as necessary) while also washing his hands of them. And yet, it was not to be. How the film would have turned out, had Ledger been able to finish, is unknown.
Certainly, a lot of the more obtuse sections of the plot would surely have been focused. His Tony would have developed as Ledger intended, rather than becoming a patchwork collage of actors impersonating actors impersonating actors. Ledger’s performance, while the film trump card and indicative of an artist discovering the confidence to express himself with abandon, does bare noticeable similarities to Depp’s foppish dandy routine.
So much so, in fact, that, when the two shift, the cut is seemless. Is this Depp doing Ledger doing Depp, or Depp doing himself in homage to Ledger’s caricature? Mind bending stuff. Neither Law nor Farrell are in the same league and their attempts to conjure up the same laconic mischief seem forced. It is a shame Depp could only commit to the shortest of the three parts, as he is the master of the effortless charisma Ledger was starting to attain.
The Imginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is a deeply flawed film. It was only on a second run through – an honour I rarely grant to a film before review, I’m a one shot deal kind of guy – that it made sense from front to back, a sentiment felt by someone I roped in for a second opinion (they didn’t like it). So, it is with a heavy heart that I can only recommend it to Gilliam or Ledger completists.
If the film itself seems cobbled together, the disc is anything but. This is a veritable Pandora’s box of goodies: deleted scenes with a commentary by Gilliam as to why they didn’t work, a costume and rehearsals test with Ledger larking around, a CGI breakdown of one of the film’s most impressive sequences, various behind the scenes featurettes and, most poignantly of all, a radio interview with Ledger from 2007, where he talks about his love of acting and how he only feels complete in the moments on set between ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
The full Director’s Commentary is particularly good, with notable emotion creeping into Gilliam’s voice when revealing personal anecdotes about Ledger. A real treat.
The Film:The Disc:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus will be released on March 29 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.