Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I hope you all are having a nice weekend. I went to my friends younger sister’s wedding. It was quite nice.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, and Lily Cole

Directed By: Terry Gilliam

As I stated in my An Education review, there are roles that announce a star’s arrival. For Heath Ledger, it was Brokeback Mountain. He showed just how far he had evolved from earlier movies like Ten Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. His big release follow up, The Dark Knight, would go on to make him an absolute superstar, ready to take over the world. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was supposed to be his first film after his rise. Ledger’s death would change all of that.

Doctor Parnassus follows a what appears to be a carny group. You have the titular Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) as the mystic, his daughter Valentina (Cole) as the muse, Anton the magician (Andrew Garfield), and the little person Percy (Verne Troyer). The integral part of their show is the mirror which transports you to the Imaginarium, a fantasy world in which anything is possible. Of course, there’s more going on than just a show. Parnassus is 1000 years old and gambles with the Devil (Tom Waits’ Mr Nick). That goes as well as one would expect.

Along the way, they save a man named Tony (Ledger and Friends), who claims to have amnesia. He’s a charismatic fellow and when the main wager with the Devil is coming to a head (that for the soul of Valentina), Parnassus goes to Tony for help. He makes some major changes (“modernizes” it) and is able to sell the show like none of them ever could. Naturally, there’s more to Tony than they all realize (more than he will ever admit to all of them). It is very likely that he, and he alone, holds the key to saving Valentina’s soul. Or perhaps not.

It’s very hard to discuss Doctor Parnassus without giving too much of the plot away. This is the first time that director Terry Gilliam and writer Charles McKeown (the duo that brought us Brazil) have teamed up since 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. What we get is exactly what one would expect: a journey to a fantastic world. Unlike some of Gilliam’s past work, there is a lot of reality to ground this film. It takes place in modern day London and Tony has major real world problems. In fact, the Imaginarium is used to get away from reality (but doubles as the battleground for souls).

The acting is quite good. Ledger brings a charm and depth to the character of Tony that most wouldn’t be able to accomplish. His “Friends” are also good, but more on that later. Plummer is superb in the title role and his banters with Waits (who is outstanding himself) are always entertaining. Cole does well, especially considering her lack of experience, though this shouldn’t be a surprise: Gilliam did the same with Uma Thurman in Munchausen. Troyer is especially funny as the conscience of Parnassus and he breaks the 4th wall from time to time.

I cannot talk about this film without reflecting on the role of Tony. Heath Ledger died before he could finish this movie. Gilliam initially figured the movie would never be completed. However, due to the fantasy aspect of the movie, it was possible to bring in those who were friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Ferrell) of Ledger to finish the film. Ledger is always Tony in the real life setting, it’s when he enters the Imaginarium where the others come in. They all do well and they all fit the three different adventures perfectly with their subtle nuances. I think the best part is that they all gave their salaries to Heath’s young daughter.

Bottom Line: While not exactly for everyone, as with any Gilliam movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is good if odd film. Gilliam creates a bleak world in which the characters and we can escape from. The acting is all well done and they play off one another nicely. I have to admit that  it takes a while to sink in and I really don’t need to see it again. That said, I did quite enjoy the movie and it is a nice send off for Heath Ledger.

7/10 (Recommended).

Be back tomorrow with another review!

Until then…


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