The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
When a film has the word Imaginarium and is directed by bone fide genius Terry Gillian (he of Brazil, Time Bandits and god damn Monty Pyhton fame) you’re probably expecting fantastic dreamscapes, amazing imagery, original ideas and borderline surreal moments of inspired lunancy.
And there’s some of that in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus but not nearly enough for my tastes.
I’ll give it this, the story is very original. (Spoilers) The film is about a kind of travelling stage show with four members, the titular Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer)a kind of eastern mystic type, Anton (Andrew Garfield), a typical theatre nerd type who juggles, does magic tricks, etc; Valentina (Luly Cole) Parnassus’ daughter and Percy (Verne Troyer) who despite being played by Mini Me himself is not a midget, as he keeps telling people.
The show is decidedly odd to say the least and seems to consist of a gold painted Anton spouting pseudo-poetry and trying to get people to crawl into a mirror. This transports them inside Dr Parnassus’ mind (the titular Imaginarium) wherein Parnassus and The Devil (gravelly voiced singer song writer Tom Waits) battle to warp the world of the Imaginarium to fight for that person’s very soul, The Devil tempting them and the good doctor trying to force them to do good, hard work.
It emerges gradually that The Devil and the good doctor have been gambling with each other and using souls as the currency for over a thousand years. The good doctor used to be a monk and he gambled with The Devil for immortality if he could get twelve good souls before The Devil could get twelve evil ones. Later on he traded that immortality for youth and daughter but with a catch, on his daughter’s 16th birthday she would become Old Nick’s property lock, stock and barrel and that birthday is just three days away.
The good doctor is rather depressed about this but then two things change in his life. Firstly they come across a man, hanging by the neck under a bridge with a flute in his throat. They rescue him but other than remembering his name is Tony (Heath Ledger, and Jonny Depp and Colin Farrell and Jude Law which yes I will explain) he is a complete amnesiac. What he is good at though is rejuvenating the stage show, drumming up business and flattering people (especially women) to take part.
The other big change is that The Devil offers the doctor a new deal. First to five souls in the remaining two days will win Valentina forever and with the help of Tony the good doctor may just have a chance. But isn’t it a bit coincidental that this man showed up just when Parnassus’ needed his help? And just who was trying to kill him anyway?
That summary may seem strange and suggest a film that’s fairly bizarre to you but it actually simplifies the film dramatically. Most of what we learn about Parnassus’ backstory, his deal with Old Nick and the true facts about Tony are drip fed to us in dribs and drabs throughout the film and not necessarily in a linear order. Also a lot of what we learn is told to us in the Imaginarium or by The Devil himself so there is definitely a case of an unreliable narrator at work here. That makes the film fairly hard to follow but not impossible if you’re paying attention.
It also highlights that this is a film that cares about its story. I’ve reviewed a few artsy films recently (Gozu, Millennium Actress) that really could care less about their actual plots. The narratives are just an excuse to introduce various symbolic elements for the audience to interpret. Now Parnassus does have plenty of symbolism but the symbols are all fairly easy to interpret and they have meaning to the character sin the story themselves.*
However the symbolism isn’t so much important as the theme. This a thematic film, it has a plot and characters and it cares about what happens to those characters because through their actions it explores various permutations of the battle between good and evil, the power of imagination and the power of choices.
And thematically this is a very interesting film. Gilliam has always been a champion of imagination and this film, unsurprisingly, shows off the power of imagination to free us from humdrum or objectively terrible existences. However, it also shows the down side to imagination in that it allows unscrupulous people such as Tony to present reality as something that it isn’t. Tony is a con man, a character who preys upon other people’s desires and imagination to hurt them and help himself. He is in a way worse than The Devil, who in this film mostly seems bored and simply has to present characters with fairly banal things (a drink, a hotel, their own mother) in order to tempt them to his side. Tony represents imagination perverted The Devil the banality and evil without imagination.
I could go on and on because thematically this is a deep and well put together piece. And it does have other things going for it too. The acting is great, we’ll talk more about Heath Ledger in a moment, but it must be said that Plummer does a brilliant job showing the inner life of Parnassus. Garfield is fantastic as well, for such a young actor he holds his own against heavyweight thesps like Ledge and Plummer with ease, even stealing the scene at times. Tom Waits as the devil is inspired casting and he is clearly having the time of his life in this. Verne Troyer is also good putting in a nuanced and enigmatic turn as Percy that genuinely surprised me since I associate him more with broad comedy than as a serious actor.
The only weak link acting wise is Lily Cole who was 21 when this film came out, is trying to play a 16 year old and is totally unconvincing at it. It doesn’t help that she’s acting opposite such giants all the time either because it just serves to emphasise how flat and lifeless she is as Valentina.
So an original story, strong themes and well acted. However, it just isn’t imaginative enough. For a film all about imagination the scenes in the Imaginarium are just not that interesting. When I go to see a Terry Gilliam film I want to see something I have never seen before but everything in the Imaginarium just looks like a music video from the early 90’s. There’s nothing clever or breathtaking about them. There are a few good bits, I like the dancing policeman in fishnets but generally the scenes that should be stand out set pieces just feel lazy and uninspired and that is a serious problem.
Now I know that this film had numerous production problems and is an independently financed production so a lot of what they wanted to do they couldn’t, but that doesn’t matter. I can only review the film they made, not the film they wanted to make and ultimately Parnassus fails at what was the most important thing to get right.
Which brings us to Heath Ledger. Now most of you reading this will know that Heath Ledger actually died partway through the making of this film. That left the crew with two options. Scrap the film entirely or try and come up with some kind of work around. The solution they came up with is actually inspired. Heath Ledger plays Tony in our real world but every time he enters The Imaginarium he is played a different actor, Jonny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Okay, it’s not wholly original since I’m Not There the Bob Dylan biopic did the same idea two years earlier (and starred Heath Ledger coincidentally) but it’s actually one of the film’s better and more interesting ideas and enhances it so much thematically. It’s one of those things born from necessity that you couldn’t imagine the film without since it adds so much to it and seems so integral.
Ledger himself is easily the best thing in the film and it’s a fitting final performance showcasing his massive talent and charisma. He owns the screen when he appears and invigorates what can be a dull film at times. As for the other three Tonys. Depp does that thing he does where he bobs his head around like a surprised Goth chicken, Jude Law looks like somebody fed him too much birthday cake and then he tried to apply his Mum’s mascara and Colin Farrell is brooding and dark and smoulders and practically has a sign on his head saying “don’t you want to take him home and fix him ladies, he’s a bad boy.” So basically they do their typical shtick and go home.
Parnassus then is really only okay. If you like Gilliam and have seen all his other films you’ll find this a weaker effort but not a waste of time. If you’re not already a fan of Gilliam don’t bother, go watch Brazil instead and then thank me later.
*For example, why does Tony’s face change when he enters the Imaginarium? Well that’s because he is a charmer who shifts to be what he thinks people want him to be and their imagination affects him so when trying to seduce an older woman he turns into her ideal man (Johnny Depp).