Screenwriters: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Starring: Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
Running time: 123 mins
A beleaguered production, as most of Terry Gilliam's are these days, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus was shut down after Heath Ledger's tragic passing and rescued when Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell agreed to step in to play different versions of Ledger's character Tony. Thank goodness this is a Gilliam fantasy and not a slice of social realism from Mike Leigh, otherwise the movie might not have been quite so salvageable. Here, a magic mirror solves all problems.
The story concerns Parnassus (Plummer), a man thousands of years old who runs a travelling show in present-day London along with his daughter Valentina (Cole), dwarf Percy (Troyer) and eager young trickster Anton (Garfield). Years ago, Parnassus made a deal with the devil Mr Nick (in the guise of gravel-voiced Tom Waits), agreeing to trade immortality for youth so that he could be with the woman he loved. The bargain came with a condition: Mr Nick could take Parnassus's daughter for himself when she reached the age of 16. As Valentina's birthday approaches, Parnassus revises the deal so that the first person to collect five souls will win her. Along the way he enlists the help of Tony, a charismatic man who is keeping secrets from the travelling circus.
Gilliam is a filmmaker who likes to direct without compromise, yet here he is forced to make a substantial one. It's to his credit, though, that the transition between actors is relatively seamless. The part of Tony isn't a showboating one like the Joker - Ledger remains mysterious, with the character's story and significance coming into play as the tale reaches its climax. This aloofness sits perfectly with Depp (whose appearance is brief) and Law acquits himself well as the idealised version of Tony's self. Surprisingly, it's Colin Farrell who is the strongest of the Ledger stand-ins. The shift to darker places with the character would've packed more of an emotional thump with Ledger, but Farrell, an actor who brings a tortured edge to his work, sells Tony's slipperiness and panic perfectly as Parnassus and Nick's battle comes to a close.
The introduction of three A-listers makes Parnassus a more marketable prospect, but that star wattage hasn't dimmed Gilliam's vision. It sits comfortably next to his "dreams trilogy" of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Parnassus is about the power of imagination and escape - a finely-tuned compendium of what Gilliam does best. As the various Tonys venture through the mystical mirror they're confronted by eye-popping scenery shaped by their own thoughts. A black river (which carries boats with pictures of James Dean, Rudolph Valentino and Princess Diana) coalesces into a snake-like image of Waits's devil, there's a vertiginous chase in the clouds with Law's Tony using a huge ladder as stilts, and a madcap scene of cross-dressing policemen recalling Gilliam's Python roots. All this amounts to the filmmaker's most vibrant and alive film in years, his rich mind synthesised and running wild for a memorable adventure.
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