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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Roger Young / 11.06.2010

It’s hard to be too critical about Terry Gilliam’s latest film because it really feels like being mean to the dead. Heath Ledger died while filming The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus and Gilliam had to come up with an inventive way of finishing the film. I say “had to” loosely. He could have walked away, they could have claimed it on insurance, but Gilliam who attracts disaster as often as he creates spectacle decided instead to turn the film into a kind of swan song and a heartfelt goodbye to Ledger; pulling in Johnny Depp, Colin Farrel and Jude Law in to be Ledger’s proxies in the missing scenes. It was lucky for Gilliam that all the Ledger-less scenes are those that take place in some kind of fantasy realm where the idea of Ledger’s Tony having a different face isn’t actually that strange, because Tony is supposedly suffering from amnesia and therefore doesn’t know who he actually is.

Doctor Parnassus, his assistant, Anton and his daughter, Valentina, run a sort of Victorian circus side show mystic act that they pull around modern London by horse cart. They set up outside nightclubs and shopping malls enticing punters to enter the Imaginarium. When they do, they enter a world made out of their desires, imagined up by Doctor Parnassus but also inhabited by Mr. Nick (played, a bit obviously, by Tom Waits). The Doctor and Mr. Nick then do battle for the punter’s soul. When Anton and Valentina find Tony hanging from his neck under a bridge they take him in, he’s confused and amnesiac, the Doctor is concerned but has other worries on his mind; on her sixteenth birthday Valentina is to be handed over to Mr. Nick, unless Parnassus saves a certain amount of souls. Tony steps in to help by invading the Imaginarium, or something.

Yes, it’s a little fucking out there and a bit dodgily put together and by no means Gilliam’s best work. However the holes in plot are not scraped over with exposition but rather left to trail. There are some obvious quick fixes and some really dodgy hamming it up from Johnny Depp, Collin Farrel and Jude Law every time Tony realizes he is in a different skin but ultimately the structural unfinished-ness lends charm to Parnassus rather than weakening it. Parnassus is a really beautiful “fare thee well” to Ledger, as well as a glimpse at what modern CGI fantasy film making could be like if it didn’t cling too tightly to formula. It’s a pity, really, that Alice In Wonderland wasn’t a Gilliam film.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus releases Friday 11th June.

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