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Review: 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' Is A Storyteller's Tale For Gilliam, Ledger Fans

Dee Doyle Dee Doyle
December 28th, 2009 1:26pm EST
The Imaginarium of Dr. ParnassusTerry Gilliam is an interesting Hollywood director in that he's bizarre and not mainstream, and yet his films are so interesting and bizarre that they get critical acclaim and great notice. His started with the "Monty Python" gang and moved on to hits like "Brazil," "Time Bandits," "12 Monkeys," and "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas." He had his fair share of failures too with the odd "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and the lukewarm critical reactions to his film "The Brothers Grimm." It was always an uphill battle for Gilliam since his movies are visually intriguing, mind bending, and not your average blockbuster. His newest adventure "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" follows his unique fantastic style of beautiful imagery and twisted stories. Beset with many troubles, especially the tragic death of its lead Heath Ledger, the film is finally released now for everyone to enjoy.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" involves two very different worlds, and they are starkly different in appearance and feeling. There is the real world where Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his theatre troupe wander around the streets trying to gain notice in classic old style vaudeville, and it is a bleak and dark world. People only notice to be amused by this old fashioned way of entertainment, but if someone accidentally goes into the mirror, as a drunkard does in the first scene, everything changes. In the mirror world your imagination is directed by Parnassus to make it a spectacular, beautiful place. It can be dangerous too, depending on who is inside it.

The troupe run across a mysterious, unnamed stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger, to begin with) who they find hung off a bridge. They save his life and he agrees to join them, swearing he has amnesia. The audience knows fairly quickly that Tony is a fast talking con artist himself, but he does have a charisma about him that helps the troupe bring in new audiences. Meanwhile Parnassus makes a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), an old friend of his that gave him immortality in the first place, to save the soul of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). He pledged her to the Devil, but the Devil enjoys their wagers and agrees that whoever can get five souls the fastest will be able to keep her. Can they save Valentina? Will she forever be fooled by the smarmy smile of Tony and ignore the devoted sweetness of her best friend Anton (Andrew Garfield)? Who is the real villain of this story?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Image © Sony Pictures

The last there is a very interesting question, because there are plenty of villainous characters in this. Parnassus made some very selfish choices and gambled away his daughter's life. Tony stole a great deal of money from some very bad people who are chasing him. The Devil gives Parnassus every chance to keep the game going and even shows regret when he starts to win, because in some ways Parnassus has become a friend to him. That dynamic is very interesting for the film. Also notable is that three actors stepped in to replace Heath Ledger when he died. Ledger does perform all of the 'real world' scenes with Tony, but Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell play Tony in the mirror world. Each of their Tony representations have a different level of darkness and show an alternate part of his personality.

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is very interesting, but it's a convoluted film that rocks unsteadily at times. It is very up and down in terms of writing and acting, where some scenes are simply brilliant and others are drab or forgettable. The best part of the film are memorable ones, most specifically anything within the mirror world. While the real time is important to create such a stark contrast to the fantasy realm, it always feels like it is bogging up the real interest of the movie. I couldn't help feeling like I wished the real world scenes would just hurry up already so we could get back to the mirror world, and that was a shame since Ledger is only seen in the dark, dank reality. This role will naturally be compared to his Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," and it is not nearly as dynamic or as fascinating, nor did it really need to be. Tony's sleezy attitude was necessary for the story, but it certainly didn't make him a really compelling or relatable character.

Watch "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"




Overall the film is visually stunning in the parts where the mirror world is explored, and the story is confusing but once you embrace the fantastical it comes rather smoothly and naturally. Newcomer Lily Cole has a major role here as Valentina, the girl who most of the story centers on, and she is vulnerable and just sassy enough to please the audience. This might have been a role better suited to a more experienced actress, but she certainly did well enough. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is an epic storyteller's tale, one fit for the main character to tell, and while it is not for everyone, fans of Gilliam will enjoy this new foray into his strangely fascinating mind. Fans of Ledger may also want to see this if only because it was his last film. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is out now in theaters.

Dee Doyle
Story by Chelsea Doyle
Starpulse contributing writer

Follow Chelsea on twitter at http://twitter.com/mustbethursday.