The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

Heath Ledger's final scenes in Gilliam's latest, plus Tom Waits!

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  • DIRECTED BY Terry Gilliam
  • STARRING Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits

  • Even taking into account the hoo-hah that greeted The Dark Knight, it’s hard to think of film that comes laden with more baggage than The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.

    After all, Terry Gilliam’s latest will be remembered for Heath Ledger’s death halfway through the shoot from a prescription drug overdose – and Gilliam’s typically inventive response to the tragedy.

    The director recast the part, with not one but three actors filing in for LedgerJohnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. All the same, it’s sad to admit that, although there are flashes of Gilliam brilliance here, this is not quite the fitting tribute Ledger arguably deserves.

    Dr. Parnassus (Plummer) is a centuries-old mystic engaged in a series of bets with Tom Waits’ boisterous Devil, Mr Nick. After winning immortality, Parnassus later trades it in for youth in order to marry. The payback? Parnassus must hand over his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to Mr Nick on her 16th birthday.

    That day is due when we first meet Parnassus, a rheumy-eyed old drunk reduced to pitching up in Homebase car-parks hawking his Imaginarium, a travelling side-show inside which audience members can live out their dreams and nightmares.

    Our first sight of Ledger’s Tony is pretty shocking – dangling, hanged, from London’s Blackfriars Bridge, which is where Valentina discovers him. He claims to be amnesiac, with no recollection of how he came to be strung up, nor any explanation for the arcane symbols drawn on his forehead. All the same, Parnassus invites Tony to join the Imaginarium’s small coterie of performers as the final showdown with Mr Nick begins.

    It seems likely that all the “real world” location sequences were filmed before Ledger’s death. It’s only the scenes in the Imaginarium itself, which required studio-based CGI work, that appear to have been shot afterwards. So, with each successive trip into the Imaginarium, Ledger morphs into Depp, Law and Farrell.

    Gilliam is at his most impishly creative with these changes, which provide a cheerily irreverent memorial to Ledger. Ledger, meanwhile, immerses himself enthusiastically into the low-budget spirit of Gilliam’s film.

    Still, Gilliam’s real problems lie elsewhere. The story of a veteran showman trying to engage indifferent audiences with the wonders of pure imagination is a nod to his own career. But the scenes in the real world seem threadbare, and whatever holes Ledger’s death left in the script can’t excuse the paucity of the Imaginarium’s fantasy world, where Gilliam’s magic sparks only fleetingly.


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