So, last week, myself and the crew went to check out The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the latest offering from Terry Gilliam, ex-Python turned writer/director/mind-fuck extrordinaire. Gilliam wrote and directed one of my favourite films, the sublime, surreal roadtrip (and I mean 'trip' in every sense of the word), 1998's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, since then, he hasn't really followed up on the flashes of brilliance which shone through this movie, although I was determined to view Parnassus with an open mind.
There's been a hugr amount of anticipation and hype surrounding the film. It's no small wonder, considering its roster of Hollywood megastars- practically everyone who's read a film review, newspaper, magazine or internet blog (so, pretty much everyone...who can read) knows that, following the tragic death of star Heath Ledger, his pals Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law rallied round to save the film's production and ensure his final screen outing was not left dwindling, unfinished, in Hollywood limbo.
As such, the film carries alot of baggage and is weighted heavily with expectation. As Ledger's 'last film' it was always going to garner alot of attention before it was even released. However, Gilliam's previous film with Ledger, The Brothers Grimm, made a mediocre splash at the box office and received only middling reviews. Could Parnassus really be the standout, the masterpiece that would propel him over to the mainstream? Or will the cinema-going public blindly troop along full of expectation which the film was never meant to stand up to?
To give an indication, we went to see this film at 2:30pm, mid-week, and the screening was fairly full. Sure enough, alot of people want to see this film, regardless of the reason.
To give the cast and director credit, the end result is a cleverly-put together visual thrill. Gilliam's decision to carry on without one of his leading cast members was a brave and bold one, that pays off in places but at other times leaves the viewer (or perhaps just me) rather confused.
The film is based around a bizarre travelling theatre troupe led by the seemingly immortal Doctor Parnassus (the second performance I've seen this week by Christopher Plummer, he was also the baddie in UP). The show features his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), young actor Anton (Andrew Garfield) and midget sidekick Percy (Vern Troyer, aka Mini-Me!).
As part of the show is a magic mirror that transports participants to fantastical parts of their imagination, which the Doctor has the power to control. The former monk made a deal with the Devil (known here as Mr Nick) many moons ago, guaranteeing him immortality- which he then exchanged to find love, on the condition that he hand over his daughter on her sixteenth birthday. (Perhaps the biggest stretch of imagination in this film is asking us to believe that Cole is only 15- neither me or any of my friends made it through our teenage years quite so easily).
Whilst trying to figure out how to break his deal with Mr Nick the troupe find and rescue a hanging man, who turns out to be Tony (Ledger). He is taken on as a cast member, garnering attention and luring souls through the mirror to help the man who rescued him.
Each time Tony himself goes through the mirror he is transformed- first of all into Johnny Depp, then Jude Law, and finally Colin Farrell. Thankfully, Jude Law's section isn't very long. He is a TERRIBLE actor, more wooden than the Mayflower and with less on-screen presence than a bag of sand.
That Tony's appearance changes each time is indicative that the amnesiac is not what he originally appears to be. It's a clever narrative advice, albeit one born out of tragedy and necessity but thankfully it only enhances the sense of deception and mystery, rather than feeling contrived.
Gilliam has a wonderful twisted imagination, which he often lets run riot, and the film's visual overload is incredible. However, at its heart, it is a simple morality tale, which asks what good can come from betting and wagering with the 'dark side', and, when faced with a choice, will people opt for good or evil?
Thankfully the film is never preachy with its morals, and Gilliam doesn't let them get in the way of a good story. A bizarre recruitment song featuring cross-dressing policemen singing "we love violence" could have been lifted straight out of Flying Circus and the scenes inside the Imaginarium are jaw-dropping. The cast are (mostly) excellent, the biggest surprise being female lead Lily Cole. I didn't have many expectations but her ethereal style suited the character to a tee. Sadly the costume designed seems more intent on showcasing her 'heaving busoms' but she makes a decent stab at it and certainly does well to dispel any pre-conceived notions about model-turned-actresses. Her would be suitor Anton is also very good and you genuinely root for the young couple. Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell do their best with the small parts they have and grizzly-voiced crooner Tom Waits seems to be having a rockin' good time as Mr Nick. As previously mentioned, Jude Law is the weak link but then again when is he not? 'Young Michael Caine', my arse.
The main focus of the film though, is always going to be Heath Ledger. Unfortunately this is not the great swan-song performance many expected and his dodgy, unplaceable accent does him no favours. It may be that there is just too much expectation placed on a film that was never meant to be more than just a fairy-tale fable, a visual feast with strong visual ethics at its heart. Rather than being the definitive epitaph of Ledger's relatively short career, this is more like an abrupt full stop. To see him at his best, watch Brokeback Mountain or The Dark Knight. Both films showcase what a truly brilliant actor he promised to be, and could have grown into were it not for his untimely death.
As for Dr. Parnassus, I'd definitely recommend it, but I'd also say don't expect it to be more than what it is- sometimes baffling, occasionally brilliand and always very, very barmy.
Here's hoping next time around Terry Gilliam serves us the masterpiece Fear and Loathing and this film show that he is more than capable of.