The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Starring Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Christopher Plummer. Directed, produced and written by Terry Gilliam.
Rated PG (menacing themes, violence and coarse language). 122 mins.

Few filmmakers have a richer, more anarchic visual imagination than Terry Gilliam. Schooled in the BBC television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which broke all boundaries in spinning non-narrative stream-of-consciousness stories in the early 1970s, Gilliam went on to make Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky, before coming uniquely into his own with the subterranean fantasies Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen.

Imaginatively lush and rich, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is in similar vein, with a storyline that makes sense on a number of levels if you dig hard enough to find them.

Drawn partly from Goethe’s Faust, eastern philosophy, and Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking-Glass, Gilliam’s latest fantasy begins with the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) being trundled at night into modern-day London on the back of a horse-drawn gypsy wagon.

Driven by the midget Percy (Verne Troyer) and the Doctor’s young, personable assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), who is secretly in love with his daughter Valentina, (Lily Cole), the Imaginarium is a travelling theatre which offers Londoners the chance of exploring their fantasies by passing through the Doctor’s mirror on stage, which catapults them into the phantasmagoria of their own imaginations.

This is only possible because of the Doctor’s secret powers, which are rooted in the pact he made with the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), a thousand years ago. Hundreds of years later, Doctor Parnassus, an inveterate gambler, made another pact with Mr Nick, in which he traded his immortality for youth. But this comes at a cost, and time is running out for Doctor Parnassus as Mr Nick returns in the new century to claim his dues.

Such an account belies the baroque, kaleidoscopic beauty of Gilliam’s imagery, and the baffling complexity of his seemingly simple plot.

What begins as a Faustian pact (Parnassus is in danger of not only losing his soul to the devil but his daughter Valentina as well) is really more complex. For while Mr Nick has all the trappings of Satan, Parnassus, despite his name, is clearly no god. Rather he is all too human, an exemplar perhaps of humankind after the fall.

At a fundamental level, all the characters are in some sense a reflection of Parnassus and Nick, who can be seen in Gilliam’s universe as primordial forces within human nature split into two. Thus Anton, who is motivated chiefly by good (which means saving Valentina from Mr Nick’s clutches) is in both name and character the reverse of the charismatic newcomer to the troupe, Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law), who is devious, multi-faced, and untrustworthy.

Also shown as a mirror-image is Percy, and how he appears in the world. Despite being a midget, Percy, who is full of pragmatism and good sense, is not a little man at all but large in character.

Gilliam’s ‘looking-glass’ then is akin in some ways to the Hindu notion of the world as maya or illusion. Whether his characters when they step through Doctor Parnassus’ mirror are experiencing exhilaration or fear, they are all (as are we) to some extent lost in the landscapes of their own minds.

Whether the viewer is driven or not to make rational sense of Gilliam’s fable, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is immensely enjoyable. Much of the reason for this is Gilliam’s original production design and hallucinogenic special effects, brought to magnificent realisation by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and others. London by night has never looked so strangely familiar and dangerously beautiful.

But it is the performances, all of them finely calibrated, that give the surreal fantasy believability and depth. Christopher Plummer is perfectly cast as Parnassus, the inscrutable, somewhat bumbling demiurge/circus-master who plays dice with the universe, as is singer-songwriter Tom Waits as Mr Nick. But the stroke of genius is Gilliam’s solution to the tragic death of Heath Ledger as Tony half-way through filming.

Ledger’s Tony is a hair’s-breadth away from ‘The Joker’, his swansong. But the decision to multifacet this character and allow the role to be played consecutively by Depp, Farrell and Law, all icons of male screen beauty and acting ability, increases the sense of illusion and gives added power and mystery to the story.

Out October 29 Hoyts

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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