Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

16th October 2009

Milo Wakelin finds much to praise - and a little to criticise - in Gilliam's latest flight of imagination, which notoriously features Heath Ledger's final performance.

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Terry Gilliam's latest film is a conceptually bold, unashamedly personal fantasy that marks a return to form for one of modern cinema's most vivid imaginations.

Gilliam's films have transported audiences into daydreams (The Fisher King) fantasies (Time Bandits, Baron Munchausen), hallucinations (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and nightmares (Brazil), but regardless of their budget or scale his work has always retained a distinctive handcrafted quality.

Parnassus' Imaginarium may be just a cheap carnival prop made of plywood and mirrored mylar, but step through, and you'll find yourself in a fantasy world conjured out of the depths of your own subconscious. The Imaginarium is an apt metaphor for Gilliam's early work as a Monty Python animator in which he used low-tech cutouts to create sequences that were surreal, unique and utterly immersive, and it's not difficult to see parallels between Parnassus, a story-telling mystic, and the director himself.

Veteran actor Christopher Plummer plays the eponymous doctor, an immortal who made a very unwise deal with the devil (Tom Waits) and must win a bet or forfeit his daughter, Valentina (the almost impossibly beautiful Lily Cole). Together with his young assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield), and a performing midget, Percy (Verne Troyer), Parnassus drags his ramshackle sideshow through the streets of modern-day London where they encounter Tony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious stranger who may either be the solution to their problems - or maybe part of the cause.

Co-written by Gilliam's frequent collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil, Baron Munchausen), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a film about choice and temptation which explores the tension between Parnassus' simple mission to delight and enlighten and Tony's wheeler-dealer instinct to turn a quick buck. Many of Gilliam's creative projects have been afflicted by meddling producers and money worries so it's a relief to find that, despite Parnassus' fictional tribulations, the director's vision remains gloriously, idiosyncratically intact.

Remarkably, this feat was achieved despite Heath Ledger's tragic death midway through filming. Gilliam's characteristically unique solution made headlines: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were brought in to play Tony's alter-ego as he steps into the world of the Imaginarium. The device works brilliantly, as all three actors adopt Ledger's distinctive voice and mannerisms whilst offering their own personal interpretations of the role.

Like many of Gillian's recent films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is uneven and many special effects, whilst beautifully conceived, do reflect the film's low-budget roots. However, fans disappointed by the uncharacteristically formulaic Brothers Grimm will find a creative vision so strong that not even the death of a lead actor could compromise it.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is out in UK cinemas now

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