THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is a beautiful, dark, wondrous, mischevious film. Every scene is full of visual delights and rich metaphors. PARNASSUS is film as spectacle - taking us back to the earliest tradition of cinema. But perhaps the most spectacular fact about PARNASSUS is that is was made at all, given the death of its star, Heath Ledger, half way through filming, a fact that evidently floored Terry Gilliam, and had the money-men, always troublesome in a Gilliam production, running for the exits. If the PR surrounding "Ledger's Last Film" gets Gilliam better distribution and audiences than he typically attracts, it's a poor motive, but a good result. Because people should see this film. And not just Gilliam fans, or fantasy fans, or fans of Dickens and Inkheart and the Brothers Grimm. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS pleases and works on many levels.
Before I get to how it pleases, let's dwell a moment on the fact that it really does work. People who love Gilliam tend to start with an apology for the baggy structure of his films and the crazy, too large worlds he creates. It's as thought they love what he's doing but wish he'd find a stronger producer and editor, and someone to just package him up neatly like a Tim Burton film. Surprisingly, I've even read some reviews of PARNASSUS alleging the same thing - the movie is, to these critics, hard to follow, rambling, jam-packed and simply strange. Well, I have to say, I found it one of the most tightly structured and dramatically satisfying of Gilliam's films. Each episode propels us from the opening conceit to the final showdown. Each is necessary. And each character develops upon the journey. So don't let the patronising apologists fool you - PARNASSUS is a great film because of its rich visual style and wide-ranging scope, but it's also easy to enjoy because it's structurally tight.
As the film opens, an antiquated travelling troupe of players is pitching its stall in the modern-day City of London. Well, modern, yes, with its drunken chavs, but timeless too, with its Dickensian grimy pavements and desolate vacant lots. The troupe is led by Doctor Parnassus - a thousand year-old mystic, devoted to telling the truths of life through stories. Centuries ago, he gained immortality in a wager with the Devil. (Just how his side-kick, Percy, gained immortality is unexplained). When passers-by go through his looking-glass they enter a world of their imagination, where Parnassus and the Devil battle for their souls. If Parnassus loses, his daughter Valentina will be forfeit. Around this larger story of life and death is wrapped a smaller tale of love. Parnassus' has raised his daughter in an atmosphere of magic and wonder, but what she really wants is a normal life in consumer Britain. A young boy called Anton, who has been taken in by Parnassus, wants to run away with Valentina, but she is more attracted to the mysterious Tony - an amnesiac in a white suit who promises to modernise the Imaginarium and make them all more money. But who is Tony? And why did they find him hanging by a noose underneath Blackfriars Bridge?
PARNASSUS works as a touching love story - where the girl is too dazzled by the handsome stranger to notice the honest, simple man who loves her. It works as a moving coming of age drama in which a young girl rebelling against her father discovers that she loves him; and the father who cosseted his daughter learns to let her go. PARNASSUS works as dark and brooding cautionary tale about the inability of escaping the consequences of one's actions. In the world of the film, imagination is not an escape but being brought to account. PARNASSUS works as a memorial to Heath Ledger, and all stars who became icons by dieing young. PARNASSUS works as a sad comment on the Death of Narrative Cinema, insofar as Parnassus stands up for stories, and the modern world has no time to hear them. Perhaps most cheekily, PARNASSUS works as a critique of Tony Blair's Britain - the pre-Credit Crunch Britain of housing market bubbles and conspicuous consumption and relentless "modernisation" - Ikea catalogues and "Norm-porn" - of eroding civil liberties in the name of greater security - of policeman clubbing G-20 protesters - of politicians with genuinely good intentions somehow messing up.
On the most basic level, PARNASSUS works as an old-fashioned fair-ground attraction. It's just delightful to look act, and when the actors are playing their characters as performers in the show, they are simply wonderful. All the big-name actors, from Christopher Plummer as Parnassus, to Ledger, Depp, Farrell and Law as Tony, to Verne Troyer as Percy, are just fine, and Lily Cole holds her own as Valentina. Tom Waits is brilliantly cast as the rogue and charmer, Old Nick. But the person who absolutely steals the movie is the young British actor Andrew Garfield (LIONS FOR LAMBS, THE RED RIDING TRILOGY). Garfield as Anton, the poor boy in love with Valentina, but also the fairground entertainer, is an absolute revelation - and worth the price of entry alone.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS played Toronto 2009 and opens next week in Bulgaria and the UK. It opens on October 23rd in Spain; on October 29th in Australia, the Czech Republic, Italy and Vietnam; on November 5th in Argentina, and New Zealand; on November 11th in France; on November 19th in Portugal; on November 20th in Iceland; on December 3rd in Slovakia; Switzerland; Norway and Sweden; on December 25th in Canada and the US' on January 7th in Germany and Poland; on January 28th in Russia and Japan; on February 5th in Estonia; on February 11th and on March 12th in Turkey.
Eventual tags: terry gilliam, charles mckeown, fantasy, johnny depp, heath ledger, jude law, colin farrell, christopher plummer, lily cole, verne troyer, tom waits, andrew garfield, jeff danna, mychael danna, nicola pecorini,