It’s no secret that I’m a huge admirer of Terry Gilliam’s work so it will come without surprise that I love The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. More likely to catch you off guard, however, as it did me I must admit, is how this film might not only redeem the director in the eyes of his detractors it should also create a whole new generation of fans.
It never takes long for me to come across someone who tells me that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil or Time Bandits is their favourite film, and I predict it won’t be long before I meet folks who name The Imaginarium as theirs. If the cinema is a place we go to dream or to see sights we could never imagine ourselves, then this film might be the perfect expression of the form. Dreamers are going to flock to this picture in droves.
To set the scene, Dr. Parnassus is an ancient and mysterious traveling showman whose horse-drawn theatre presents something like a Medieval Mystery Play by way of the Commedia dell’arte. Setting up in unexpected areas, from shopping malls to housing estates, Parnassus performs routinely to an audience that doesn’t want to care and seems barely equipped to understand. Among his band of players are his beguiling young daughter Valentina, Anton, who fosters romantic feelings for her, and Percy, Parnasssus’ coachman, dwarf and holy fool. Very soon a fifth joins the troupe, in the handsome, charming and mysterious, character of Tony.
Indebted to Dr. Parnassus and company for saving his life, and with little or no recollection of what that life was anyway, Tony becomes the sideshow’s champion barker. By this time, though, Dr. Parnassus is on his third stakes-raising bet with the devilish Mr. Nick, and the fate of Valentina herself is hanging in the balance. It seems that maybe Tony may be the only one able to save her.
However quite atypically, especially for a fantasy film with a large number of special effects as this one, the lead character of Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer, is an older man. Imagine a Lord of the Rings with the Fellowship relegated to supporting roles in a story that focuses closely on Gandalf’s exploits and you’ll get some idea. Going further than that, however, Dr. Parnassus is shown to make some serious mistakes, moral missteps and grave errors of judgment that Gandalf would never have been permitted to commit. He’s a most unlikely hero and is just what we need more of at the arrowhead of our narratives: a complex character that doesn’t simply come straight off the peg.
Despite Plummer’s being the star of the film, the names above the title are those of the four actors called upon to play Tony. The late Heath Ledger, who initially had been set to play the role entirely, completed all of the film’s scenes set outside of the Imaginarium’s magic mirror. To enable Gilliam to finish the film it was decided that Tony would show a new face each time he passed through the mirror into the realms of imagination. Gilliam seems reluctant to take the credit, but his ingenious solutions are what made completing the film after Ledger’s untimely passing possible while still maintaining the integrity of the film and its themes absolutely. This changing face of Tony’s has become a keystone in the overall construction of the film, which belies how hard the reconfiguration must have been for everyone involved in finishing the film.
The first transformation and the briefest of these ‘guest star’ scenes calls upon Gilliam’s friend Johnny Depp to play Tony at his most endearing and lovely. Jude Law appears shortly afterwards as an aspirational Tony climbing for the clouds, before the longest of the sequences employs Colin Farrell to finally show us the character’s true colours.
The casting throughout shows a similarly sure shot, hitting bullseye after bullseye, each of them perhaps more perfectly chosen than the last: Lily Cole as a stroppy and bored yet coy young beauty, Christopher Plummer exhausted past the reach of his own wisdom, and Tom Waits wearing the bowler hat and smoking the cigars of the Devil. Smaller roles are also well cast with some of the best screen talent in Britain today, including my favourites Mark Benton and Montserrat Lombard, each popping up for just a moment.
However the film’s secret weapon is newcomer Andrew Garfield as Anton, Parnassus’ young showman who vies with Tony for Valentina’s affections. His is a serious role and one of considerable size but far from being a part of the film’s public persona or marketing. Garfield is all but absent from the one trailer released so far yet in the actual picture, he’s a shining star capable of stealing scenes left, right and centre, even right from under Ledger’s nose. The two have one particularly wonderful scene together in which Anton teases and taunts Tony, with Anton for the first time winning the upper hand over his rival. Gilliam has revealed that this scene came at the exact point during filming when an intimidated Garfield finally found the confidence to go toe to toe with the big star on set.
Like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Allen’s Radio Days or Fellini’s Amarcord, this feels like a deeply reflective and personal film for the director, infused with the images and obsessions not only of a career in the cinema but of a lifetime. As well as reprising of some of the motifs that Gilliam fans have come to know and love, there are even sequences here inspired by abandoned or lost moments from films that he has never gotten to make (yet). For a long-time Gilliam fan, this is a return to his off-the-wall Wonderlands, and for newbies it’s the perfect primer.
In each of Gilliam’s three fully self-initiated projects so far – Time Bandits, Brazil and this one – the story plays out across two different realities. One is the ‘real’ reality, or at least reality as perceived by the characters of the film, while the other is a realm of fantasy lurking below or behind. In Time Bandits this is The Time of Legends, in Brazil it is Sam’s dreamscape and here it is the incredible, changing terrain of the mind as accessed through the Imaginarium’s magic mirror. Depending on who passes through and how their imagination transforms this other world, we might be taken into a dark quagmire littered with abandoned beer bottles, a candy-coloured fantasia of designer-labeled excess or a cartoon vista of Looney Tunes ladders stretching impossibly into the sky. All of this is realized with Gilliam’s unerring sense of design and unique eye for visual tweaks, twists and turns that elevate every composition in the film. There are plenty of things out of place, but they’re deliberately, strikingly and effectively so.
Once again Gilliam’s key co-conspirator is cinematographer Nicola Pecorini who through a vast array of varied sets and locations, and the appropriate styles necessary to render them, maintains a remarkably high standard of lighting and camerawork. Rarely has a film looked this wonderful without sacrificing its visual storytelling to stylization. Every colour, texture and pool of light is as integrally woven into the overall storytelling as in a painstakingly designed Pixar film. Live action films usually don’t boast this degree of aesthetic density and coherence all at once, though you can see Pecorini’s previous collaborations with Gilliam for more examples, particularly the similarly extraordinary colourscapes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Gilliam’s choice of locations often recalls the beautiful entropy he regularly tapped into earlier in his career, from the power stations featured in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys to his vistas of historical chaos in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits. This cinematic world is further expanded by the subtle, rich soundscapes and the splendid score by Jeff and Michael Danna, not to mention the fragments of a couple of surprise songs co-written by the director himself. The creation of new worlds is absolute, both visually and aurally.
Towards the end as Tony’s forgotten past begins to come to light, the film starts to take on a number of cultural and political resonances. Not for nothing is this character called Tony, for example, and an appearance of the Sun newspaper and a familiar front page headline will ring bells with UK audiences. It is to Gilliam and McKeown’s credit that these references remain subtle and don’t have to be unpicked by the viewer for their effect to be felt. Though the script is referring, if only obscurely, to some particular individuals and events, the fiction has been bent into something more universal. The concerns here are the underlying ideas, themes and – it’s a fairy tale, so why not – morals, and not the specific shadows cast by these notions that Gilliam took as inspiration.
I’m going out on a short limb and call this the best film of the year right now. It’s also the most ambitious, richly orchestrated and sophisticated film, and on top of that it will grab you and not let go. As the film reminds us, our bodies may turn to dust, but it’s the stories that are worth telling that will outlast us. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is definitely one for the ages.