Terry Gilliam has long been a name to strike fear into the hearts of movie executives across the west coast of the US. Loved by the film cognoscenti, his films are wilfully lavish, surreal, obtuse, melodramatic, lusciously emotional explorations of dystopian futures, re-imagined pasts and morality-laden fables. He’s also a funny guy, with an eye for absurd comedic situations as befits a former Python. All of this is on show here, in spades, with a chorus of dancing policemen in tights on top.
There is no other filmmaker like him, really. Nor is there really another film like The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. This, amongst other well-publicised factors, is no doubt why it has been so long awaited.
Like all of Gilliam’s work, this film has issues: there are so many ideas, layer upon layer of concept, context, subtext and interpretation that it, at times, becomes overbearing and not a little arch. But at the heart of it beats a rhythm so aligned with the most magical things that cinema can produce that you gradually forgive its faults, hop on the gondola and dream of where the river may go next.
Visually cued by Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead, Willy Wonka, Clockwork Orange, the painting of Salvador Dali, One From The Heart and Prospero’s Books to name but a few things that immediately spring to mind, it’s then been blended in Gilliam’s own whirlwind mind with the rest of his oeuvre. Parnassus is thus a heavily spiked cocktail of imagery and imagination that is as joyous as it is uncomforting and uneven. When it flies, it really flies, but when it wanes, the lull is amplified exponentially.
Luckily, at its centre lie five strong performances: Christopher Plummer’s drunken immortal, Lily Cole as his bulletproof porcelain daughter, Johnny Depp – being, well, Johnny Depp (that’s good enough, as always), and Tom Waits growling his way through a bravura turn as Mr. Nick, turning in the kind of brilliant performance that probably makes Bob Dylan wonder where it all went so wrong.
Top of the list, though, is Andrew Garfield (whom we saw in Lions For Lambs and the two Doctor Who/Daleks/Manhattan abominations) as the downtrodden, lovelorn and lost Anton, delivering a performance so immersive and beautifully subtle that he makes you believe the lunacy that orbits him. No higher praise can be given than that, apart from, maybe, to say that every actor who he interacts with here is made better.
What I’m about to say is, probably, bordering on blasphemy. It may be a personal thing; I don’t really know if I’m alone in this, but here goes: Heath Ledger wasn’t all that, folks. Sorry, sorry, sorry. There you have it, I said it. It pains me to speak ill, it really does, but every time he utters a word, for me, it’s like he has a big sign above his head saying ‘I’M ACTING NOW EVERYBODY… WATCH ME’.
I have simply never been able to suspend myself for him, and certainly not here. His central performance as Tony, I’m sure, is infused with the amped-up delivery demanded of him post-Joker, but it don’t do nothing for me, guv’nor.
Depp gets away with being Depp (and doing exactly the same thing), because he’s so damn good at it. Heath Ledger never had those chops, I’m afraid. On a very basic level, his accent here is wobbly to say the least, with more than a little Australian creeping into his lost Lahhhndon wideboy caricature, Tony; a central catalyst so instantly slimy and unpleasant that he serves, more than anything else, to expose the desperation of those that become his cohorts.
Though that’s probably his purpose in the script, this distaste for Tony (the part also played by Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, the latter of whom comes closest to ‘matching’ Ledger’s performance, unfortunately) serves, sadly, to reduce the impact of the final act, which, though immensely striking and beautifully put together, lacks the emotional kick the visuals deserve.
After the many tribulations of his career, that Terry Gilliam can even raise the energy to attempt something as wondrous, and non-studio-friendly as this project is testament to a cast-iron will and indefatigable nature, I’ve no doubt. I love him for that; I admire what he produced here and never cease to be impressed by his visual acuity and the downright madness of what he puts in front of the camera for my delectation.
I came out of this film bloated with fine cinematic fayre and enjoyed the experience immensely. I couldn’t, for one second, criticise the ambition, the vision or the sense of purpose that this film has, and if only I could say that about more films. The whole effect is quite giddying, and a gnat’s danglies away from being a flat-out piece of Grade A sirloin cinema.
Doctor Parnassus is a nice joint, no mistake, but, for my money, just a little on the scrawny side.