If you’ve never seen a Terry Gilliam film before, you’ll be baffled and likely frustrated by the storytelling style and visual exaggeration that are trademarks of his weird and wonderful movies. A former member of the comedy team Monty Python, a peculiarly English sense of humor suffuses his films too, from Time Bandits to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Brazil. In the spirit of disclosure, I am a big fan of Gilliam’s work and have looked forward eagerly to the cinematic release of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and really enjoyed it.
A more accurate title for the film would be “The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam”, because so much of the film takes place in a trippy, surreal world that borrows many story and visual elements from his earlier work. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal storyteller who helps keep the universe on track. At one point he explains: “we tell the internal story of the world, without which the universe would cease to exist.” Gilliam is just that sort of storyteller, taking on profound, deep and challenging questions of good and evil, of truth and lies, of real and surreal.
The imaginarium itself is a looking glass, a gateway to another world where your dreams are realized and you can wander through your fantasies and most astonishing wishes. For some people it’s a dark place, a spooky forest, while for others it’s a children’s dream park of candy and rolling green hills. It’s also a gateway into Doctor Parnassus’ mind and a place where visitors must choose between the path of good and the path of evil, as added by Satan (called “Mr. Nick” and played by Tom Waits).
The film gained much notoriety because gifted young actor Heath Ledger (who plays Tony) died during the production, leaving this as his final work and Gilliam with a half-made movie. Rather than scrap it, however, Ledger’s death was woven into the storyline and at various points we see Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as Tony, within the unreal world of the Imaginarium itself. It works surprisingly well, and when we see these other Tony’s doing double-takes at their reflections, we understand the confusion. At one point Tony/Farrell is talking to Valentina (Lily Cole) and she looks at him, puzzled, and asks “Who are you?” to which he answers “use your imagination”.
That’s a splendid bit of advice for anyone who is going to see this amazing, albeit slightly unpolished gem from Terry Gilliam: to truly appreciate The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, you too will be required to use your imagination, in a way quite unlike just about any other film you’ll see this year.
Truth be told, I didn’t particularly like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and while I could objectively see that his performance as the Joker was terrific, it was also troubling and twisted, a sufficiently unpleasant role that it was hard to appreciate the actor beneath the makeup. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus offers a much better vehicle for his acting prowess and I was quite pleasantly surprised at what a splendid performance he gave. He’ll be missed.
The imaginarium is the centerpiece of a traveling carny show built around a massive wooden stage that folds up neatly into a horse-drawn cart that’s about the size of a London double-decker bus, just twice the height. In an inspired bit of story, the troupe, consisting of Parnassus, his daughter Valentina, eager young beau Anton (Andrew Garfield) and midget Percy (Verne Troyer). travel through contemporary London, setting up in front of nightclubs, bars, a DIY store similar to Home Depot, and a trendy outdoor shopping district. The stark contrast between the modern people — all of whom are unpleasant, selfish and brutish — and the nostalgic troupe with their fantastic costumes and run-down stage production are but one of the many metaphors throughout the film that question what price we pay for modernity and progress.
As the film opens, Valentina is about to turn sixteen, which we learn is a problem because years ago Parnassus made a deal with the Devil to win her mother’s heart. As a result, any children he fathered would become the Devil’s when they turned sixteen. Mr. Nick reappears and offers Parnassus a different bet: if Parnassus can get five souls first, he can keep his daughter. Bet made, deal accepted, and the race is on…
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
We are first introduced to Satan in a scene that takes place in a monastery far in the Tibetan mountains, where Parnassus oversees monks who are reading the story of the world while hovering on small floating rugs. As with so much in the film, the visual is astonishing, and the scale and complexity of the monastery are fantastic, even as the story winds upon itself. This is just one of the amazing visuals that highlight the film, each more delightful and surreal than the previous.
The initial bet between Parnassus and Satan is revealed at the monastery, offering an insight into who Parnassus really represents: if Parnassus can attract twelve disciples before Satan can, then he’ll be granted eternal life. Later in the film we learn that Parnassus has been alive for two thousand years. I’ll let you connect the dots.
Later in the film, Parnassus explains to a distraught Tony that the visions in the Imaginarium are not his, but are those of the person who enters the looking glass. “I’m the facilitator – I just create the opportunities.” That’s unquestionably Gilliam speaking, and given the lackluster reception that the film has enjoyed in the cinematic community, it appears that there are too many critics who want to be handed a fully realized vision, not an opportunity to consider their own.
Ultimately, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a splendid addition to Terry Gilliam’s body of work, featuring strong performances from its cast, astonishing visuals and surreal sets, and a story that gets more profound the more you think about it and let the film take you on the journey into the imaginarium itself. As Percy explains at the end, when a child asks him if the Imaginarium comes with a happy ending, “Sorry, we can’t guarantee that.” Indeed.