Terry Gilliam is one of the boldest, most reckless and daring directors working today, with a back catalogue that includes his 1985 masterpiece Brazil, and his excellent 1990s films The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After the horrible miscalculation that was Tideland (2005), the disappointing The Brothers Grimm (2005) and his failed Don Quixote film (as documented in the 2002 film Lost in La Mancha) it is wonderful to see Gilliam in full form again with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The Imaginarium is part of a travelling vaudeville show run by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a man whose immortality and ability to guide the imagination of others have come with a price that a mysterious figure named Mr Nick (a.k.a. The Devil himself, played by Tom Waits in an ingenious piece of casting) soon wants Parnassus to make good on. Parnassus’s only hope is to make one last bet with Mr Nick to see who will be the first to seduce five souls. Along with his daughter and two assistants, Parnassus must encourage people to enter the Imaginarium while Tony (Heath Ledger), the latest member of Parnassus’s troupe, does his best to lead people through their imagination down the path of light and joy. However, Tony may not be quite so noble as he seems.
As well as having a reputation as an incredible visual craftsperson, Gilliam is also somewhat known for his extraordinary bad luck with getting his films to fruition. During the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Gilliam suffered his most tragic blow to date – the unexpected death of his lead actor Heath Ledger. Ledger had completed all the scenes as Tony set in England but was yet to do the scenes set inside the Imaginarium so Gilliam created the concept that when a person goes inside the Imaginarium they are physically transformed. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell literally donated their services to play Tony in his three key scenes inside the Imaginarium and the result is quite profound. Not only does the final film feel as if it was intentionally designed for the role of Tony to be played by the four actors, but the film functions as a tribute to Ledger. Depp, Law and Farrell channel Ledger brilliantly and during Depp’s segment he gives a strangely moving speech about dead icons being forever young.
Nevertheless, while The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for many will be known as Ledger’s last film, this should not overshadow the fact that it is a glorious film in its own right and a testament to Gilliam’s uncompromising vision. The dark whimsical story, hyperactive cinematography, flurry of sound and extraordinary production design are all combined to generate a classic Gilliam serving of cinematic excess taking ideas and motifs from the painting of Salvador Dali and René Magritte, the literature of William S. Burroughs and Lewis Carroll, and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. The scenes set in everyday England around the carnivalesque travelling show are outlandish enough but when we are taken into the Imaginarium absolutely anything goes. Gilliam embraces the beloved dream logic of the surrealists to an astonishing degree in these scenes and the results are truly spectacular.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a wild, surreal and uninhibited unleashing of Gilliam’s imagination. Yes, it is often muddled, bewildering, chaotic and confusing but it is a film of such power that its sheer visual audacity transcends anything that would have dragged down a lesser film to make it a dream-like experience that you will happily lose yourself in.