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Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam's latest has been released on DVD and Blu Ray fairly recently so now is as good a time as any to reprint my review of what landed up being Heath Ledger's final role. 

From (Originally published 18 June 2010)

What it's about: 

The Imaginarium of the title is a travelling sideshow that has, at its main attraction, a mysterious mirror that allows any who enter it, access into a wild and wonderful world of magical wish fulfillment and dreamlike landscapes, but with a dark side that constantly threatens to steal the unsuspecting visitor's soul. As the story progresses, we are introduced to amnesiac con men, fracturing relationships and, oh yes, some very nefarious deals with the devil. 

What we thought:

After the seemingly artistically compromised Brothers Grimm and the weirdly infamous obscurity of Tigerland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus marks the welcome return of one of cinema's great visionary directors. After all, it's not just anybody who can surpass an early career as a Python, but Terry Gilliam did just that with a long stint as a wildly imaginative, versatile and steadfastly uncompromising filmmaking auteur. And say what you will about the not-without-its-flaws Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus but it's impossible to deny that, unlike so much of the trash spewed out by the Hollywood machine, it is a genuine piece of filmmaking by someone who clearly loves and understands the medium and uses it in innovative and unique ways to bring his vision to life.

On that note, before getting into all the things that Imaginarium gets so very perfectly right, there is an unavoidable and fundamental flaw with the film that has to be dealt with first. Gilliam is clearly a guy with a vision but in this case, the vision is somewhat compromised by a plot that creaks and shudders at times under its own whimsical machinations, never coalescing into an entirely satisfying whole. This isn't entirely a new hiccup in Gilliam's work but it does mean that I can't ever see this being considered in the same league as Gilliam's magnum-opus, the darkly humorous, dystopian nightmare of Brazil.     

What it does have going for it though is, well, pretty much everything else. For a start, there is that white elephant in the room that I have managed to studiously ignore so far. For all my talk of Terry Gilliam, Imaginarium is inevitably most hotly anticipated as the final project to involve the presence of the sadly departed Heath Ledger. His incendiary performance as the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight set the film world alight and garnered him every best supporting actor award under the sun. Most importantly, it finally solidified his place as one of cinema's greatest acting talents after a solid career that, in retrospect, now feels like a warm up to the all too fleeting main event. 

The question then, is not only whether or not his final role lives up to his most famous turn, but how precisely Gilliam would be able to work around the fact that Ledger died in the middle of making the film. To the former question I can only say that even if his performance here isn't nearly as memorable or as iconic as the Joker, it is a poignant reminder of an actor who, with seemingly little effort, could enliven up the screen with a real, easygoing charm and genuine, honest-to-goodness screen presence. 

As to how Gilliam fared in dealing with this crushing blow to his production, one can only assume that all those years of troubled productions, gave him the ability to deal with a problem that would have capsized most films. His solution is elegantly perfect in its execution to the point that it seemed like the plan all along. It's also touching in that it involves Ledger's colleagues and friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, stepping in to essentially pay tribute to the fallen actor. I'll leave it up to you to discover just how he managed this (though I believe it is, by now, widespread knowledge) but, aside for a slightly flat resolution to his character's arc, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fine epitaph to Ledger's career. "A film by Heath Ledger and friends", indeed.

Another potential factor that could have easily crippled the film was of Gilliam's own choosing, but again he rises to the occasion and dispels all fears. Gilliam has long been known for his wonderfully realised physical special effects that his move to the now more conventional computer-generated effects threatened to hurt his latest film in the way it did Burton's most recent efforts. Unbelievably, while I did miss the almost tangible way he used to bring the impossible to life (and there was the very occasional hiccup) the CGI actually served the film really well, allowing his formidable imagination free reign on screen once again.

Rounded out by a great cast including model Lily Cole and the ever-wonderful Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits as the title character and devil respectively, well drawn characters, some genuine heart and a beautifully offbeat sense of humour, this may not be Gilliam's best film but it is well worth seeing for anyone who likes their movies to be somewhat off the beaten track. And throw those pirated DVDs away. I know it has taken a while to get here, but this absolutely beautiful movie has to be seen on a nice, big screen in a proper, good ol' cinema.

South African readers by The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (in DVD or Blu Ray form) from Take2.

International readers buy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus from Amazon.

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