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Non-Review Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a strange film, even with the concession that Terry Gilliam is a strange film director. Everyone knows the film is the last big screen work from the deceased Heath Ledger and it’s a shadow the film doesn’t feel entirely comfortable stepping out of. It’s almost paradoxical, but in watching it one gets the sense that the film may have bee the better for being less reverent of the actor – it would stand as a better testament to his memory if it could let go of his memory. In short, The Dark Knight will probably stand as the greatest testament to the actor’s ability and and rightly so. That doesn’t mean Parnassus is a waste of time – well, not all of it anyway.

Through the looking glass...

Parnassus is film of two halves. One contains the scenes that Heath Ledger completed before his death, and the other was improvised using the talents of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to replace the talented Australian. One half is grounded in reality and set amidst the dreary and depressing urban grey which doesn’t complement Gilliam’s sensibilities, while the other half is set in bright and colourful worlds which allow Gilliam’s imagination to truly take flight. Sadly, Ledger’s scenes are all loaded towards the front half, which is set in modern day London and lacks the magic and whimsy that Gilliam is so skilled at producing.

One can’t help but get the sense that these scenes are prologue. They introduce us to the characters and the dynamic and the relationships. They tell us everything we need to know before our fantasy can truly begin. However, these are the only scenes which Gilliam was able to produce with Ledger – so they must all remain in the film. One can understand that Gilliam would be afraid to cut the scenes, for fear of reducing Ledger’s presence in a film clearly intended to be one featuring him as a lead. In a way it might have felt like throwing away some of the last work of a great artist – it must have been nearly impossible to do.

I’m going to unpopular and say that it should have been done.

That first half of the movie is poorly paced and organised, it’s slow and repetitive. Yes, Ledger is great (his accent in particular is worth praise), but the film just drags. The audience gets the ideas in the first fifteen minutes: boy has crush on girl who is attracted to bad boy who just showed up, while father has bet with devil which will cost her her soul on her sixteenth birthday. It’s an old story and a familiar one. At the risk of being attacked by fans of the director (and I am one of them), Gilliam has always been much better at finding exciting and challenging was of presenting old and simple stories than he has been in actually fashioning stories. His excecution is always the most interesting aspect of any production rather than the setup. Here what should last fifteen minutes lasts an hour.

The net effect is that the drama only really gets started an hour into a two-hour film. Which is a shame, because once the film hits this stage – a daring race against time and Old Nick himself to find five good souls – it runs a lot smoother. There are still some problems – most of which result from the fact that this segment only forms half of the film rather than the majority. These fantasy segments, in which Heath Ledger’s character, Tony, guides souls through their own imagination towards spiritual enlightenment, are as visually stunning and complex (and, crucially, fun) as anything Gilliam has put together, but there’s the sense that they have been somewhat compounded and compacted.

Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in to play Tony in the scenes Ledger himself was unable to finish. Each is presented as a differently imagined version of the character, as the fantasy is driven by the more powerful imagination to step through the magic mirror. If that doesn’t make sense to you – or strains against your suspension of disbelief – I can only offer you the same words of advice that Jude Law’s interpretation of the character offers a similarly befuddled witness, “Use your imagination.” It has been said before and will be said again, but it is a stunningly clever way of getting around the issue of the missing leading man. Depp and Law do well in what are effectively extended cameos. Farrell has the chunkier of the three roles and adopts what could be considered the brave approach of avoiding direct imitation of Ledger. His Tony is as much a chancer and a bluffer, but it’s a slightly nastier and more outright dastardly portrayal of the rogue. I don’t see how that could have been avoided, but it’s a fairly noticeable shift in tone. It’s perfectly understandable in context, though – it just takes some time to accept that this is the same character.

I’ve been talking a lot about Heath Ledger and his character Tony in this review. You’d think he was the central character and actor of the film. The problem is that the film, though it tries to hide it, doesn’t really feel that way. Tony’s arc is an interesting and complex one, but it doesn’t support the amount of time given to it. It only really works when Tony’s own personal demons – concerning his neglect of children for whom he should have been caring – is juxtaposed against the similar (if less severe) errors in judgement made by the eponymous Doctor Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer.

The movie makes clear in the end that the real heart of the story is that of the eponymous traveling showman. Without discussing the ending too much, it is very much centred around the fate of Parnassus himself. However, Parnassus is sidelined from the moment Heath Ledger appears, hanging from a London bridge. It becomes a story about Tony and “what Tony did”. The problem is that there isn’t enough material with Heath Ledger to make that arc work (in fact, it is mostly dealt with in the imaginary sections), which – as alluded to above – means that while the film is focusing on Heath as Tony it isn’t really moving anything forward.

It doesn’t help that the film seems calculated to play off Ledger’s death. In one scene Johnny Depp’s version of the character remarks, “Nothing is permenant, not even death” while we are treated to floating coffins of James Dean and Princess Diana, dead before their time. It’s little moments like this which made me just a bit uncomfortable – more so than the opening shot of Heath Ledger hanging, almost dead. The movie is about immortality, particularly of stories, but the scenes shot after Ledger’s death seem to focus on the enduring of great men after death. It just feels a little bit too much, particularly when we presented with the immortal Parnassus, a man who has faded away despite remaining alive. There’s something disconcerting about a movie dedicated to an actor who died at a tremendously young age hinting that perhaps that was the best way his legacy could endure.

It’s a shame, because the movie has a lot to say about storytelling, which has been a favourite theme of Gilliam’s for years. Here he suggests that video games and modern art have culturally bankrupt us, giving us the wonderful visual of a traveling troupe stuck in a literal wasteland, scavenging for food. There are wonderful ideas expressed on the importance of stories – particularly an early scene where Parnassus postulates that stories are literally what hold the world together, featuring a bunch of monks who must repeat the story lest the world spiral into nothingness. It’s ideas like this which are endearing, but the death of Heath Ledger casts an understandably long shadow over things. The movie never truly leaves it.

In short: it’s a mess of a film. The first half is boring and slow, effectively the cast and crew hanging out with Heath Ledger and waiting for something to happen. The second half is a bunch of stand-ins wandering through increasingly impressive fantasy backdrops that feel like they deserve more exploration. I really don’t mean to be harsh, but this is not “a film from Heath and friends”, as the end title suggests. It is a film from a talented troupe of actors. Had Heath Ledger not died, he would have been part of the ensemble. He still would have been on the posters as the biggest star and he would have had a fantastic – albeit supporting – arc. Instead, it feels like the whole film has been stretched out and distorted around him, and that’s not fair – especially on him.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has a good film hidden somewhere inside it, with a fantastic performance from Tom Waits as The Devil and the wonderment of Terry Gillaim’s imagination at play. It’s just a shame that looking for it actually feels a bit like those non-nonsensical rambles through the supporting characters’ subconsciouses.

2 Responses

  1. I was completely set on going to see this film when news of Heath Ledger’s death broke. But, when iffy reviews came out, I decided that it would be best to leave. Having read your review, I think once again that this was a wise choice. As you say, it’s probably better to remember him The Dark Knight, what an amazing performance!

    • Yep, it’s odd – the movie really suffers for wanted to be entirely faithful to Ledger’s memory. Those early segments need a cold and hard re-editing, because the film just meanders around for ages doing nothing at the start.

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