The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

24 05 2010

“This world we live in is full of enchantment for those with eyes to see it.”

That is a quote from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Terry Gilliam’s tenth film as sole director. It is also the thematic thread that ties all his work together, from the childhood fantasy of Time Bandits (1981) to the supernatural wonderland of The Brothers Grimm (2005). For over 30 years, Gilliam has been bringing old-fashioned magic to the screen, despite audiences becoming increasingly cynical and jaded over that time.

If the veteran storyteller was once Sam Lowry, battling a faceless system in order to keep his dreams alive, he’s now Doctor Parnassus (Christoher Plummer), an aging showman whose magic mirror fails to spark the interest of a public captivated instead by the bright, shiny objects of consumerism. And yet he persists because he must—it’s too depressing to think that most people will choose cheap thrills over the power of the imagination, given the choice.

In the film this is depicted via a series of bets between Parnassus and Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), each vying for the chance to win human souls. Parnassus’ Imaginarium offers anyone who steps into his mirror a choice between the rewarding challenges of their higher purpose in life versus the baser delights of ol’ Nick himself. For an alcoholic, this is the choice between a “12 x 12 x 12 step program” on the one hand and a lounge bar on the other, and for each person who enters the Imaginarium, the choice is just as personal.

And so Parnassus travels through the streets of London with his accompanying show and troupe, hoping to prove himself right—that people, at heart, want imagination and magic—despite all evidence to the contrary.

It’s hardly a secret that Parnassus was Heath Ledger’s final film before his untimely death. Gilliam’s films have often been the victims of behind-the-scenes catastrophe, and so it only seems fitting that possibly his most personal project to date is also the film that he managed to salvage against the greatest odds. (He’s now working again on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film he started in 2000 that similarly met with disaster.)

Here Ledger plays Tony, a mysterious stranger found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge, whose ideas for attracting new customers could be just what Parnassus needs to win his latest bet. Meanwhile, the stakes are now higher than ever, with Mr. Nick breathing down Parnassus’ neck at every opportunity.

I first saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus late last year at the cinema, and while intrigued, I was unsure of my ultimate opinion. There was a nagging sense that the end result was simply the best made of a bad situation, and more a reconstruction of “what might have been” than a finished film proper.

But seeing it again, those complaints seem both unfair and unjustified. This a return to form for Gilliam and his first truly fantastical work since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), not coincidentally the last film (until now) that he co-wrote with Charles McKeown. Ledger’s absence in no way compromises their vision here, and the use of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play Tony inside the Imaginarium is inspired. In fact, the choice to have a duplicitous character take on more than one face when inside the mirror-world almost seems planned from the start.

While Depp may be the most enticing addition to the cast, it’s Farrell who saves the day, being totally believable as Tony in a third act right up there with that of Brazil (1985). Ledger’s cocky, manic performance is transformed into cool egotism by Farrell, as everything Tony desires materialises before his eyes. Lily Cole, who plays Parnassus’ daughter Valentina, is equally responsible for maintaining the illusion that this is the same character, not once missing a beat throughout the sequence. (Andrew Garfield as Anton does something similar with Jude Law in an earlier sequence.)

If anything, Ledger’s death hurt the film most in how it raised expectations. Sadly, most people do want the flashy, fleeting offerings of Mr. Nick over the genuine magic of Doctor Parnassus, and if such types found themselves entering Gilliam’s Imaginarium for the chance to see Ledger’s final performance, of course they’d be disappointed.

The problem here is that Gilliam’s mind runs a million miles a minute, and like all his films, Parnassus is crammed with so many brilliant ideas that it’s far too easy to judge it at first as chaotic, shallow nonsense. The visuals are spectacular but often overwhelming, and it’s only on the second viewing that you really start to appreciate what’s actually being said. Modern audiences, however, have been trained to tune-out when watching movies with recognisable stars, and so if it can’t be grasped immediately, it’s dismissed as being worthless.

Can the average person really be blamed if they go to see Heath Ledger’s Last Film, Starring Johnny Depp, expecting The Dark Knight meets Pirates of the Caribbean? When they’re then invited to climb Mount Parnassus, the home of the Muses, it’s no surprise when they run screaming in the other direction.

It’s for this very reason that this film is needed now more than ever. When I saw Parnassus last year, it was in the smallest cinema of a multiplex with maybe three other people also choosing to go along for the ride.  (Everyone else was probably too busy watching 2012 or something equally inane.) So many people have become numb to true wonder that they instead desire BIGGER EXPLOSIONS! and MORE CARNAGE! just so that they can feel something at the time, even if the experience is forgotten before reaching the parking lot. Parnassus, on the other hand, reveals its magic slowly, and repeated viewings only make it grow greater in the mind.

And while this is Ledger’s last performance, it’s Plummer who is the real standout here. His Parnassus is weary with age, mournful of all his mistakes in life yet unable to break the cycle. He is a man with two clear addictions—alcohol and gambling—and his soul has been slowly eaten away by the pains of life. Nonetheless, he’s likeable in a pathetic way, and its his struggle to find redemption that is the true emotional arc of the story.

Ultimately, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is designed for longevity, not big opening weekends. It has something important to say, and isn’t afraid to alienate those who lack imagination in the process. But if you have that imagination—if, like Gilliam, you can see the enchantment in the world we live in—the Imaginarium may be just the show for you.

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