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The Devil, You Know

by Dave Durbach / 12.06.2010

Watching a film based on the profile, of either its stars or its director, is seldom a wise move. Watching because it’s the posthumous send-off of a slightly above average actor seems a better reason. Trying to enjoy the finished product is another story, however – particularly when the star in question died midway through filming.

While bad news for a movie like The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, for any aspiring actor, dying young is the surest shortcut to greatness. Heath Ledger has proved no exception. Director Terry Gilliam saw fit to call this “a film from Heath Ledger and friends” in the closing credits, a selfless (yet somehow pompous) deed that exaggerates Ledger’s role and distracts from far more entertaining performances by Tom Waits, as the devil himself, and Christopher Plummer as the washed up holy man Dr Parnassus.

The immortal Parnassus has an ongoing wager with the devil as to who can claim more souls. Travelling by horse-drawn caravan around modern day England, the good doctor and his small troupe offer unsuspecting onlookers a chance to step inside his “Imaginarium”, a dreamworld only he can manifest. Once inside, visitors can live out there own fantasies, but they soon have to make the choice between good and evil – the doctor or the devil. One stormy night, the nomadic carnies rescue an amnesiac drifter (Ledger) hanging beneath a bridge. Tony joins the troupe and tries to help turn their ailing fortunes. Far from the saviour he seems, however, it soon emerges that Tony is in fact the crooked boss of a children’s charity, on the run from Russian gangsters.

The second half of the film takes place primarily inside the Imaginarium, where Tony’s likeness alters to suit the whims of whoever’s trip it is – Gilliam’s tactic to salvage the film after Ledger’s death. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell take turns as Tony and do well to keep the ball rolling. Normally insufferable for the full duration of a film, Law and Farrell’s parts are thankfully not much longer than fifteen minutes apiece. (Another reason to be grateful – Tom Cruise reportedly tried to get in on the act, but was turned down by Gilliam for being such a poes.)

Gilliam’s inimitable style makes The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus watchable, although it lacks the frantic genius of Brazil or Fear and Loathing. That Gilliam managed to complete the film at all is testament to his deft creative touch. Unpredictable, unique and for the most part entertaining, the plot itself – while hinting at the timeless struggle between good and evil, creativity and conformity – at the end of the day seems flaky, far more style than substance. As a result, the entire spectacle comes across as far less than the sum of its parts; surely not the movie for which Ledger will be remembered, but too good to ignore.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opens Friday 11th of June.

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