Some (quick) thoughts on Terry Gilliam's new (and Heath Ledger's last) film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which screened last Saturday at the Oxford Theatre, Halifax, as part of the 29th Atlantic Film Festival:
The plot, in brief: Doctor Parnassus, once a monk, has made a deal with the Devil, in the form of Mr. Nick. Using his magic mirror, Parnassus brings people into a fantastic world, where they're confronted with a choice. This choice is between the easy way, or the hard way; the brave way, or the way of the coward. More often than not, people choose the wrong path, the path that brings them to Mr. Nick. At stake in this game is Valentina, Doctor Parnassus' daughter. It seems like Parnassus is destined to lose, when Mr. Nick offers him another bet: the first to five souls in the next three days, wins. The bet is complicated by the appearance of Tony, a young man found hanging on the underside of a bridge. Doctor Parnassus' troupe (Anton, Valentina, and the tiny Percy) save Tony, even though his mysterious past threatens all they hold dear...
I was immediately pleased by how much this looked like a Terry Gilliam film. After the abysmal The Brothers Grimm and the overlooked and misunderstood Tideland, many were wondering if Gilliam's slump would continue. When Parnassus starts, it immediately looks like one of his older films: the street scenes in London bring to mind, for instance, the street scenes (complete with Red Knight) in The Fisher King.
To bring to life the director's vision of the mystic storyteller Doctor Parnassus, whose 1000 year-old dealings with the devil ("Mr. Nick") are drawing to a close (or are they?), Gilliam assembled a fantastic ensemble. Helmed by Canada's finest thespian, Sir (but not really) Christopher Plummer, Parnassus features what might be break-out performances by Andrew Garfield as Anton (think Tim from The Office, if he was a traveling magician) and Lily Cole as Valentina, the daughter of the good Doctor. Cole seems to be a fine actress, but her looks are certainly what's most striking about her: when made up in her Imaginarium costume, she looks like a living China doll.
Of course, most attention will be paid to Heath Ledger, playing the role of Tony. And that's fine; three other actors play Tony as well (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law), and Ledger blows them all away. It is quite sad to see that Ledger passed away when he was so clearly in top form.
That being said, Tom Waits steals the fucking show. "Mr. Nick" is the Devil as a gravel-voiced hep cat, a gleefully wicked being that isn't really evil, just sort of playful and naughty. Waits' smooth, whisper-like delivery of every line is so completely counter to what you expect from films these days that it's almost a jolting experience, to begin with. Once you get used to it, all you can do is wait for Mr. Nick to show up again.
Jeez, these "quick thoughts" haven't been quick, have they? Anyhow, Doctor Parnassus feels right at home in Gilliam's oeuvre, though I'd be lying if I said that it was up to snuff with his best work. The untimely death of Ledger hurts the film more than Gilliam would like to let on: the narrative seems somewhat broken. However, it's far from incomprehensible, and the other actors are written-in in a very believable fashion. Still, you can feel the change in the film at right about the half-way point, when the filmmakers had to scramble to finish it. A lot of things remain unclear, and it certainly feels like some scenes between Ledger and the rest of the cast would have been necessary to really make the film feel complete. That said, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fun film, and a must-see for fans of the director.