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Hal MacDermot [Film Festival 11.05.09] movie review fantasy mystery adventure

Year: 2009
Directors: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Hal MacDermot
Rating: 7 out of 10

Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is a tribute to his wonderfully creative and absurd imagination, and it’s also the last film of the late, great Heath Ledger, who died during production. With Gilliam on the verge of quitting, Heath’s friends in the shape of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped into the breach and saved the day. Imaginarium is ambitious with flashes of genius, but the individual parts are greater than the whole. When Gilliam is in full-on Time Bandit absurd mode I loved it, but in the bigger picture, the exploration of imagination, lust and the path to salvation, I wasn’t convinced. This is a movie with the Gilliam visual stamp, and you should try and see it on the big screen.

The film is a mixture of morality tale and the battle between good and evil. It charts the spiritual and temporal journey of the unlucky and ageing Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). The good Doctor is a spiritualist who has lived thousands of years, and his vision is to bring salvation and enlightenment to people though stories and the power of imagination. On the opposing team is Mr. Nick, the devil himself, and his goal is to catch souls by appealing to their vulgar, selfish, material urges. Through the years, Mr. Nick and the good Doctor have run a series of bets on which vision is correct. Trouble is, as history has moved on, people’s imagination seems to have lost out to lust, greed and violence (yes, that’s right, the world we live in). Parnassus has been reduced to travelling the streets as a carnival entertainer with horse and cart, and the power of his imagination. Tick, tock, time’s run out, Mr. Nick has come to collect on his bets, and it seems that the life and soul of the Doctor’s sweet sixteen daughter (Lily Cole) is the wager that’s due. Cue Heath Ledger in the form of snake in the grass Tony, whom they find hanging, almost dead but not quite, under a London bridge. Will the mysterious Tony save the day, or will he betray them? Ledger’s performance was very strong, and you feel his magnetic charm.

At the heart of Gilliam’s vision is a belief in the power of imagination. Dr. Parnassus’s show consists of a mirror, though which people walk directly into a world of imagination. They are faced with an incredible world and a lot of CGI. Visually, I think I prefer Gilliam in Brazil Bandit Munchausen 7 Monkey non-CGI mode, but this is still impressive. Just as Mr. Nick is about to collect the daughter, he decides to let Parnassus off the hook and gamble one more time. Why would the devil do that? No idea. But anyway, now he and the Doc are racing first to win 5 souls, for the life of the daughter. Later, Mr. Nick gives him several other breaks too, and I think the dramatic tension and stakes suffer for it.

The Imaginarium is full of great ideas, and has excellent jazzy carnival music, but I’m not sure it’s a great film. The character of Dr. Parnassus, spends most of his time as a passive drunk, and that’s not usually a good thing for a protagonist to be. Don’t say Nicolas Cage because he still drove the action in Leaving Los Vegas. Back in the Imaginarium, the moral choices left me cold, where they should have had me raging against the selfish heartlessness of our greedy world. For example, a bunch of crazy Russian thugs get to choose between joining a chorus line of transvestite policemen and crawling up the skirt of what I think was their babushka mother back in Russia. Now visually this is amazing, and it’s totally hilarious, Monty Python lives on in the modern world. But in terms of clear story/moral choices, I have no idea why one is bad or good. Which side should we or the Doctor be on in that case? No idea mate.

It has been argued that this movie mirrors the evolution of Gilliam and of his fantasy films. You have Time Bandits, with young, fresh imagination roaming all of history. Then comes the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he’s still travelling a wonderful wide world, but he’s older. Lastly comes Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam?) still believing in the power of imagination to save the world, but he’s grey haired, his powers are fading, and the cold, modern world is mostly not listening. Commercialism rules in today’s studio films, or at least it tries to, and it’s very tough for a creative genius to stay true to their vision. I’m on board with Gilliam’s quest, but I’m not sure the movie expressed the message very clearly. Witness the devil with his unclear motivation.

Unlike most people in today’s world, the power of imagination is so strong in Gilliam, that I doubt he will ever be tamed. Luck for him, lucky for us. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is not a perfect film, but give me flawed genius to cotton candy any day.

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agentorange (13 years ago) Reply

Amazing review. I would expect nothing less than "flawed genius" from Gilliam.


Ben Austwick (13 years ago) Reply

I actually thought this was one of Gilliam's more coherent films, you almost can't believe how much sense it's making until it all falls apart near the end :) Visually it's brilliant and the London location work is great. I agree with your review but would have been charmed into giving a higher score I think.

I don't know what what people see in Heath Ledger's performance (though he does a good accent), but maybe the fact that I was going on about how great Lily Cole was and the girl I went to see it with was going on about how great Heath Ledger was says something :)

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