Cannes 2009 Review: Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
by Alex Billington
May 23, 2009
Where have you taken us this time Mr. Gilliam? In the latest film from one of the wackiest and most beloved filmmakers, we're given a somewhat psychedelic glimpse into his truly wonderful imagination. It's his best film in a decade, the very last film starring Heath Ledger, and the first starring role for model Lily Cole. I'm not exactly the biggest fan of Gilliam (especially after Tideland), but I'm happy to say that I'm a fan again after watching The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam takes us on a whimsical journey through the streets of London with a story that may have some big flaws, but is still an experience to watch.
Christopher Plummer plays the aging Dr. Parnassus, a former monk whose mind is connected to a magical mirror that transports those who enter into his imagination. Parnassus travels around London with a small theater troupe made up of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), performer Anton (Andrew Garfield), and sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer). Unfortunately, Parnassus made a deal with the devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), and will lose his daughter to him on her 16th birthday. But in a chance encounter they save Anthony (Heath Ledger) from suicide and are given the chance to potentially change Valentina's destiny.
It's a confusing film, as is expected with Gilliam, since there's plenty to take in regarding the idea of the Imaginarium and the story of Mr. Nick and the importance of Ledger's character. I even had to see it a second time to give it a full analysis, a luxury I didn't have with Inglourious Basters. Basically, I enjoyed it, thanks mainly to Gilliam's directing and his technical finesse, but otherwise, the story and its characters were the most troubled. The first half was incredible, but it slowly starts to spin out of control, and by the end, which is spent primarily in Parnassus' imagination, it gets so wild that it's almost hard to enjoy.
Although I know this was Ledger's last performance, it's not one he is going to be remembered for. In fact, I was actually really annoyed by his character, he just seemed like a bumbling idiot who didn't deserve the second chance at life he was given. On the flipside, though, Plummer as Parnassus was a highlight, as was Lily Cole as Valentina. I've heard others in town express their love for Tom Waits, and I'll agree that he did do a good job, but he didn't completely stand out in my mind. The biggest issue with these characters, and the story in general, is consistency, in that they were always all over the map in their actions.
Parnassus, who was once a wise and thoughtful monk, seems to have lost his mind in old age. He also occasionally gets drunk, which is an issue that is barely addressed but is a burden on the story. It causes problems once, but why even include it in the first place if its got not other use. Anton can't ever figure out what he wants, and is either actually helping or destroying the show. Anthony, as well, switches between being both good-hearted at first and then brainless and ill-intentioned later on. The only one who seemed consistent was Valentina, who wanted a happy, normal life and was always trying to get one.
Since so much time is spent in the imagination in Doctor Parnassus, a good chunk of the film is completely CGI, with only the actors performing on green-screen backgrounds. Gilliam does a fairly good job dealing with Ledger's death part of the way through the shoot and works in some fun and funky scenes with the three replacement actors: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. In fact, that inconsistency was actually a good thing this time, and not a problem like mentioned previously. Especially because they only appear when inside the Imaginarium, which is already a twisted experience where anything goes.
Maybe this film really is suffering from Ledger's death, but Gilliam has managed to hide some of the bigger problems. What I mean is that maybe my complaints with consistency and the characters were actually addressed in the original script. And that when Ledger tragically passed away and Gilliam had to fill in the blanks with replacement actors, it lost some of that stability. It became more of a story about how zany it would be seeing three different actors playing the same character inside of Parnassus' mind and less about the real story at hand. But all criticism aside, it's another great Gilliam success, even with some flaws.
Cannes Rating: 7.5 out of 10