Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam


You have to pity Terry Gilliam. His film projects have an unfortunate habit of going belly-up. From the debacle over the edit of Brazil, to the overbudgeted fiasco that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to the collapse of the now-in-development-again Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam has faced down a lot of problems and come through bruised, but still standing. Tragically, one man who didn’t come through making The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Heath Ledger, who died in January 2008, midway through the shoot. With his usual pluck and verve Gilliam, having initially put the film on hold, hit upon the novel idea of having different actors portray Ledger in scenes in which his character Tony ventures into Dr Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) Imaginarium. With aplomb, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law fill in the gaps in Ledger’s performance, while the scenes Ledger filmed prove the talent he displayed in The Dark Knight and I’m Not There; a wonderful actor was taken long before his time, and he will be missed.

Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t meet the high standard Ledger sets. To be fair, the supporting cast (Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole (in a breakout role) do fine. They bring enough credibility to their roles. However, the script (by Gilliam and Charles McKeown) doesn’t do their talents justice. The story (involving a travelling show centred on a portal into an alternate world called the Imaginarium and a wager between Parnassus and Waits’ Satan) is nigh-on unfollowable, and is so far-fetched as to rob the audience of any empathy for, or interest in, the characters. Yet, as with much of Gilliam’s back catalogue, the emphasis is not on story, but on visuals, and the trips the the characters take into the Imaginarium are undeniably beautiful. Rivers morph into cobras, and ladders stretch to the sky, yet they can’t make a throwaway script work, and thus the film falls flat. The scenes in the Imaginarium are the most interesting, but there aren’t enough of them to save the film, whose pace sometimes slows to neutral in scenes set in the real world. To paraphrase George Lucas, a special effect without a story is a boring thing.

Kudos must be given to Gilliam for presenting beautiful and original images to us, and for preserving the final performance of a great talent. It’s just a shame that that talent wasn’t invested in a better film before it was taken from us.


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