Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

on September 10, 2009 by Barbara Goslawski
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Heath Ledger’s final performance is a star turn in a brilliant film. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece. His virtuosic pairing of spectacle and nuance crafts a morality tale that resonates with boundless allusions. Couched in the guise of a down and out travelling show, the film soars through fantasy, fable and adventure with seamless ease. Gilliam’s penchant for using animation to explore the imagination reaches its artistic apex amid astounding technological advances. In this context, Gilliam elicits stellar performances from his cast, each one demonstrating an incomparable presence and verve. Besides the star power, this film demands to be seen on the big screen and will appeal to a wide audience.

You don’t have to be a fan of Terry Gilliam to appreciate this achievement, although fans of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm will relish The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. It is the artistic fulfillment of Terry Gilliam’s unique vision and practice to date. Always a master of cinematic form, he expertly uses the medium itself to work out such ancient motifs as the very nature of good and evil. A simple task, perhaps, but in Gilliam’s hands it becomes a labyrinthine meditation. Every favorite Gilliam device and trope is employed here to breathtaking effect.

Looking more like a carnie than a spiritualist, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) travels through contemporary London leading an antiquated sideshow. This show conceals a very powerful tool that frees the human spirit. Used by the wrong person, however, it can only feed on evil desires. When Parnassus and his ragtag band innocently save the life of the suave amnesiac Tony (Ledger), their fragile endeavor teeters near destruction. Turns out he has a secret past and a nature to match.
But Parnassus has a secret of his own: he is not the true embodiment of all that is good. Nothing is as simple as it seems in this film. Having made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) regarding the soul of his own daughter, the good doctor continues to confide in this unlikely, long time confidante about his current woes. Theirs is a complex relationship to say the least.

Heath Ledger’s untimely death left an unfinished performance, and therefore no way to conclude the film as planned. His character, Tony, slyly hides his true evil self. Yet, in a morality tale, he must eventually be brought down, if not at least be revealed. Gilliam’s solution to his film’s dilemma is ingenious: if Tony’s secret self is multi-faceted then the film must demonstrate that. Why not use other actors? Johnny Depp plays Tony’s first transformed corpus, while Colin Farrell and Jude Law follow as transformations two and three, respectively. The transformations are breathtaking, both visually and thematically, and extend the film’s ethical considerations to a logical conclusion.

Perhaps more to his credit, Gilliam remains true to age-old storytelling traditions while rooting them in a decidedly modern context. No small feat. Gilliam manages to create a symbiotic relationship between seemingly divergent visions. The ancient informs the modern and the modern reverberates with added meaning. It’s all there, good versus evil, the power of the imagination, hope regained—and there’s not a clichéd moment in it.

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Producers: Amy Gilliam, Samuel Hadida, William Vince and Terry Gilliam
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Rating: PG for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.
Running time: 122 min.
Release date: December 25, 2009

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