The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


Terry Gilliam’s film is a visual feast, as wondrous and eclectic as its title suggests. It is a tale about a group of theatrical players who travel around the deep, dark corners of London. They transport their unsuspecting audiences through a mirror into the magical Imaginarium – a world where their imaginations come alive but also a place with a hidden threat. The group’s wise, old (and recently often quite drunk) leader Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is troubled by a deal he made with a sinister fellow (Tom Waits) that could result in him losing his daughter Valentina (played by model-turned-actress Lily Cole).

Tragically the star of the show, Heath Ledger (playing Tony – an amnesiac with a shady past who joins the group and could either help or hinder Parnassus’ plan to save his daughter) died aged just 28 part-way through filming, leaving the director thinking the film was over and that it would have to be shut down. But the cast and crew convinced him to rethink and because anything can happen inside the Imaginarium, he came up with the idea that it could alter people’s appearances once they stepped inside. After that, it was just a matter of casting three actors for each time Tony entered the Imaginarium. Gilliam turned to three of Ledger’s friends; Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who all do an admirable job of extending the character in different directions. All three donated their fee for the film to Heath’s daughter Matilda. They each look very similar to Heath’s Tony (helped by magic or make-up), especially Depp, who made me do a double-take before I realized who it was.

Gilliam’s Imaginarium harks back to his earlier films, although not quite reaching the dizzy heights of Brazil. For this reason, it makes sense when you learn that he explored his archive of unused ideas for inspiration when he first started work on it. There are also moments in the film where the visuals are very Python-esque, particularly the stunning world inside the Imaginarium and most notably the singing and dancing policemen wearing skirts and stockings.

Overall, the film is as fantastical and surreal as has come to be expected from Terry Gilliam. The cast all give strong eye-catching performances and although the story gets a bit tangled, it ends in refreshingly non-Hollywood fashion. The cast and crew have done their friend Heath Ledger proud by finishing his final film and creating a fitting tribute and a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic treat.

DIRECTOR: Terry Gilliam
CAST: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
RUNTIME: 123 min
COUNTRY: UK, Canada & France

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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