The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is billed as a film by Heath Ledger and friends. That's a nice tribute to the actor who met with such an untimely death whilst making the film.
The tragedy did of course threaten to put an abrupt end to the whole project. Thankfully Terry Gilliam's imagination went a little beyond that. With a clever juxtaposition of the storyline there was in actual fact enough material on hand to complete a coherent film.
Doctor Parnassus immediately strikes you as a wonderfully joyful fantasy film. From the holographic artistic cover to the rather strange beginning it's a film that invites you into the strange alter ego world of Terry Gilliam's mind.
They say though it's at times of your greatest troubles when you tend to have to produce your greatest triumph.
If it wasn't for the help of three friends Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law who volunteered to step in then this project really wouldn't have seen the light of day. Thankfully Gilliam was gifted these three quality actors, the studios continued to back the film and the production retained its budget to see it through to completion.
Those familiar with Gilliam's previous works will know how he can conjure up some quite eclectic and entertaining fare. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is probably a good comparison to what you get here but that is over 20 years old now. It comes as no surprise though that he is still able to use that weirdly wonderful imagination of his. Coupled with the far improved special effects at his disposal he was now able to realise and visualise it all to far better effect.
The story is set in modern day London where Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs a travelling theatre troupe. Imagine the scene, an out dated troupe that resorts to pitching up outside nightclubs. It's a case of “roll up roll up and step up to the Imaginarium” and then waiting for some poor drunk souls, bereft of their senses looking for some late end of night entertainment.
The Imaginarium is nothing other than a simple stage show. The props and the cast centre around a mirror that doubles up as a magical doorway that leads into an enchanted world conjured up through the mind of the meditating Doctor Parnassus. Customers are allowed to walk through the mirror into a land of their wildest dreams or one of their very worst nightmares. As they pass through the mirror Doctor Parnassus tunes himself into their desires and the fantastical world beyond becomes a most unique world of sense and sensibility for each and every customer.
For all its visual trickery the Imaginarium is very much the real deal. It is not just an illusionary fairground attraction. What happens in the world beyond the mirror retains its rather bizarre and ultimate consequences. No one is guaranteed to return and you most definitely enter at your own peril.
Whilst it doesn't take you long to tune into the story, its good to understand the background to get some semblance of what is going on and why. Doctor Parnassus is over a thousand years old and was originally a monk who made a pact with devil aka Mr Nick (Tom Waits). The agreement initially centered around giving him immortality but the deal then went on to take many different guises over the years. Ultimately, the price of gaining immortality was a payback to the devil by handing over his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) at the age of 16.
The Imaginarium is of course something of the devils very own making. Think of it as a vehicle that offers both redemption of your soul, or loss of it into the ready clutches of hell, in equal measure. It enables him to lure unwitting souls more readily than otherwise so. For anyone to escape and successfully return back to the real world they are faced with a choice. It's simply a case of allowing the path of wild sin and temptation to lead you astray or choosing a more righteous one that ultimately decides their fate.
The devil however loves a wager and offers Doctor Parnassus a late get out in order to keep his daughter. The deal is the first to five souls. The entrapped Parnassus readily accepts but the problem is how to drum up enough business to honour the bet? Valentina is about to turn 16 in a few days time and business is woefully bad.
Enter Heath Ledger as Tony Shepherd. The troupe finds him hanging from under a bridge and decide to save him. When he recovers he decides to join the road show as a feature in his own right. Its his way of thanking them for saving him. Whilst he's a mysterious addition to the cast his sudden amnesia allows them to accept him simply for what he is. Tony also brings with him a more up to date outlook on how the Imaginarium should look and it isn't long before he becomes a positive influence on business.
Whilst the story gradually unfolds as a case of good against evil there are myriad intriguing layers before the whole thing comes together in a conclusion that is far from predictable. Gilliam tantalises the viewer with many prospective tangents that keeps interest at the very fore but always reverts back so that neither the film or the story ever lose it's way.
What we have here is a film that throws up such an alluring kaleidoscope of visuals and a story so magically enchanting that even the sudden absence of Heath Ledger cannot hold it back. Sad though his demise was the end result here is actually quite a coherent piece of work and the transposition of Tony Shepherd across four actors becomes nothing other than a seamless join.
In actual fact if you didn't know any better you would feel that the film was intentionally made this way. It really does pass quite plausibly so. The performances from the whole cast are excellent. Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits are notably on superb form and add to what is an immensely enjoyable and enthralling film. This is a great movie and well worth watching.
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