On DVD: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Crack open the mind of filmmaker Terry Gilliam and you’re likely to find something akin to the imagination world inside the mirror in his film “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Known for surrealism, candy-coated visuals and deliberately hacking at all that stands for common sense, Gilliam applies these trademarks to the kind of film where they belong most: in a fairytale fantasy.

Although the details are certainly fuzzy, “Parnassus” makes itself fairly accessible compared with the rest of Gilliam’s repertoire. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an ageless man who runs a traveling side show with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), a dwarf (Verne Troyer) and a young man named Anton (Andrew Garfield). Their act offers people a unique chance to see possibility of imagination by stepping into a mirror where a world of their subconscious awaits them.

At the end of one’s trip into the imaginarium is a choice that reveals the heart of the film. The first path belongs to Parnassus, but the second is commandeered by the devil himself (Tom Waits). Turns out Parnassus has engaged in many a bet with “Mr. Nick” over the years, including one that promised him Valentina on her 16th birthday, which has nearly arrived. Parnassus and Mr. Nick are in an argument over human nature and through the imaginarium, Parnassus hopes he will prove his point. By this point, the devil has made a fickle alcoholic out of Parnassus, but all that is about to get complicated when the travelers pick up Tony (Heath Ledger) from the brink of death.

Ledger’s unexpected death in 2008 certainly threw a wrench into this film, but in a world where anything’s possible with Gilliam defining “possibility,” there shouldn’t have been much doubt. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all play versions of Tony when he enters the imaginarium, where the person who enters sees things according to their deepest desires, thus justifying the change. It works excellently and the three actors capture the spirit of Ledger’s oddball performance.

The premise of “Parnassus” alone provides Gilliam every excuse he needs to justify the whimsical and bizarre events of the film. Those with big imaginations themselves will pick up on the “rules” of his story fairly quickly, particularly the visual metaphor. The film is also driven by an idea: human nature. This is not the age-old worn down debate of good vs. evil and whether humans are inherently one or the other. It’s about whether — when given free will — we can face our mistakes and continue to write our own personal narratives despite temptations to rest, to give in and save ourselves the woe of uncertainty. This choice is what manifests itself in the world of the imaginarium and in Mr. Nick and the doctor’s wagers.

I suppose most will struggle to see this brilliant meditation on a rarely discussed theme amidst the swirling surrealism and abundance of strong characters played by equally strong actors who offer the temptations of simply watching the character subplots unfold from the love story to Tony’s back story. The young Garfield and Cole create memorable characters for being new faces, which credit their casting in this film. Gilliam has always had a knack for finding exceptional talents and recruiting proved ones. Between Ledger, his fill-in, Plummer, Garfield and Cole, Gilliam has compiled one of the few excellent multi-generational casts.

Stick with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and good will come of it. Gilliam does not want to alienate anyone; the very last scene alone provides some excellent last minute insights into the themes. Behind the abstraction, the odd clash of period-style costumes and dialogue in a contemporary context lies a wonderfully human story.

4.5/5 Stars

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Andrew Garfield


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