Posted by: Dr P | September 24, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

Terry Gilliam’s deranged imagination is one of the great delights of modern cinema. With a lavish budget and a spectacular cast, this movie really did allow him a vast canvas upon which to paint his surreal and magical vision of a world where good and evil are in constant conflict.

Doctor Parnassus (played by Christopher Plummer) is a 1000 yr old travelling sideshow owner, whose “Imaginarium” offers the participants the chance to choose between happiness and joy, or temptation and darkness – all depending on the paths they choose when inside his creation. The Imaginarium is a boundless world of fantastical sights and sounds, all created within the Doctor’s brain and guided by the desires and fantasies of its inhabitants.

However, there is a dark edge. The Doctor’s own immortality was handed to him by “Mr Nick” (the devil, beautifully played by a seedy chain-smoking Tom Waits) in exchange for the handover of Parnassus’ first born child on its 16th birthday. As our story opens, Valentina, the girl in question, is just days away from her coming of age and the inevitable trade to the devil (of which she of course is blissfully unaware). Accompanying the duo on their adventure are Anton, a young man besotted with Valentina, and Parnassus’ midget sidekick Percy (Mini Me himself – Verne Troyer).

With the hour of Valentina’s trade almost at hand, fate plays a strange hand – the travellers discover a strange man (the late Heath Ledger) hanging underneath a bridge. Having pulled what they think is his corpse down, they’re astonished to discover that the man is still alive, albeit with no recollection of who he is. Ultimately we discover that he is Tony, a charity owner, but for now, he is a man shrouded in secrets, not least the mysterious symbols on his forehead.

Mr Nick reappears and after much begging, agrees to renegotiate his bet with Parnassus – the first to collect 5 new souls will have Valentina as their own. Parnassus promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to the man who can help collect these souls, which is of course an open invitation to both Anton and Tony to work hard for him.

A number of seedy characters from Tony’s past appear and we discover that he may not be exactly who we think he is … and indeed each time Tony goes inside the Imaginarium, his character transforms. Heath Ledger of course passed away while filming the movie, and so Gilliam drafted in a number of big names to fill the ‘Tony’ role inside the Imaginarium – this provides a delightful feast of acting talent, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and a very shady Colin Farrell each taking turns to enter Tony’s character.

The second half of the movie is very much an exercise in morality, as we see every character battle with their own demons, and Parnassus ultimately having to make a massive sacrifice of his own.

Visually, this is spectacular. Gilliam is a visual genius bar none, and the ideas, creations and sheer scale of the world he depicts are incredible to behold. The contrast of the fantastical world inside the Imaginarium and the seedy backstreets of modern day London is well realised, and we are provided with any number of moral arguments about right, wrong, the truth, the choices we must make in life, and sacrifice. As a morality tale, it also excels.

The plot does slow slightly towards the end, but this takes little away from a magical spectacle. It will, however, lose a great deal on translation to the small screen, so if you want to see this movie, I’d urge you to see it at the movies while you still can! Fans of Gilliam or any of the lead actors will revel in this. The acting is top notch, with Ledger once again proving just what a massive loss he is to the acting world – he is top notch here, not quite reaching the heights of the Joker, but not far behind. Tom Waits is a star turn as Dr Nick, while each of the later Tonys are very well played.



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