Shiny Shelf

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

By Mark Clapham on 24 October 2009

I have mixed feelings about Terry Gilliam. While I like a lot of his films, and love a couple of them, I can’t help feeling that he’s not quite the artistic martyr his fans make him out to be.

Was it the studio’s or the Weinsteins’ fault, for example, that the actors in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ deliver all their lines in the same mumbling, stuttering delivery as used to such great effect in the asylum scenes of ‘12 Monkeys’, but which proved pretty much unbearable in a light comic fantasy? Or is it that Gilliam’s tics as a director, those oddities of performance and weird rambling digressions, sometimes fit the material perfectly (‘Fear and Loathing…’) and sometimes don’t (‘Grimm’)?

Thankfully, with ‘Imaginarium’ Gilliam is telling a story, and portraying a cast of characters, that fit his concerns and talents perfectly. The characters navigate two worlds: a contemporary London that’s portrayed with bleak realism, and a fantasy world of unbridled imagination that can, nevertheless, turn at any time into a threatening world of vice and insecurity. Gilliam navigates these worlds brilliantly – the real world is hyper-real and stripped of any stylish directorial touches, its polished shopping centres almost as fearsome and unforgiving as its violent drunks and muddy poverty. The dream worlds, on the other hand, allow Gilliam a level of free-wheeling imagination to match his original Python animations.

While there are long sequences of mumbling (this is not a film to see at the end of a long, stress inducing day, rather one to linger over on a Sunday), as actors do their best eccentric/altered states of consciousness stuff, it fits with a plot which slowly builds to a surprisingly focussed climax, as the levels of weirdness clarify to a sharp conclusion. By the end we know what is what and who was who, and can move on – the continuity of storytelling and the struggles of imagination being as key a theme here as it is in the best of the director’s work.

What pleasantly surprises in ‘Imaginarium’ is that, for all of Gilliam’s notorious hamster-wrangling and focus on visual details, this is as much an actors’ film as it is a spectacle. Christopher Plummer, playing Dr Parnassus himself, throws himself into a difficult, dirty role and in the process shows off his considerable range, while Tom Waits brings brimstone and terrifying charm to the role of Parnassus’ personal temptor and eternal gambling opponent, Mr Nick. Verne Troyer demonstrates that he can play serious as well as funny as the impatient Percy, while Andrew Garfield gets a career building turn in Anton that should help nudge him further towards the Hollywood success that hopefully awaits.

The role that will get all the attention, of course, is Tony. It’s an odd final role for Heath Ledger, a man who may be a lunatic, may be a saviour, but who is definitely some kind of trickster. As such, Tony is fluid, hard to grasp, and Ledger plays all those parts brilliantly. Due to Ledger’s untimely death, Tony’s dream selves are played by Jonny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all bringing different sides of Tony to the surface. Of the three, Depp has the least to do – an actor of his range has to tone it down rather than raise his game to walk in Ledger’s shoes, but he does so perfectly and with his usual charm. Depp also gets the least challenging part of the plot, before the other actors open up Tony’s character more.

Law and Farrell, on the other hand, do pull their bloody bootstraps up and bring their little-seen A-games to the table for their late friend – I haven’t seen either actor be this good in years. When Ledger died, he was about to hit a career renaissance, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Parnassus’ showing his acting abilities in a way that had been barely seen since ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’, abilities buried during years dicking about being Generic Leading Man. It would be nice if his friends, here stepping in to complete his role for him, saw a similar return to their earlier promise.

While it is Ledger and his replacements who will be talked about in terms of the promotion of the film, and Ledger himself receives an inevitable dedication at the end, ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ isn’t Tony’s story as such. It’s the good doctor’s daughter, Valentina, who goes through the greatest journey. Valentina is the centre of the story – Parnassus and Nick wager over her future, while Anton and Tony (and would you look at those matching names?) battle for her affections. It’s a difficult role, a girl on the verge of womanhood, not quite out of childhood but alluring to some. In some ways Valentina has to be the straight woman to the madness around her, the sane one in the centre.

Valentina is played by Lily Cole, and maybe its Cole’s years of experience as a young model that helps her play that difficult balance, but she’s brilliant in the role. In a slightly thankless part she’s both sympathetic and suitably ambiguous, while playing opposite an acting giant like Plummer and a seemingly relentless march of scene-stealing turns from everyone else.

It is pleasingly fitting with the themes of constant struggle and endless imagination that lie at the heart of the film that, just as ‘Parnassus’ sees us bidding farewell to one talented actor, it also sees us welcoming another. The story goes on.

Line Break

By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

Comments are closed.