The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Rating – ***1/2

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After feeling dumbstruck by the overwhelming promise of the trailer, along with the cast and crew pedigree, I was expecting nothing short of miraculous. It pains me to admit my initial disappointment, but this “Imaginarium” doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. It’s both a misfire and a masterpiece, which is a Terry Gilliam speciality.

There’s no escaping the impact of Heath Ledger’s death. Making a final “grand” entrance hanging by his neck from a London bridge is as unfortunate as the body-bag scene in The Dark Knight. It’s not an issue which detracts from the scene in isolation, but you just can’t help comparing fantasy to (Brothers) grim reality. Ledger’s performance as the mysterious Tony is charismatic and intriguing. He doesn’t set the world on fire, but that’s because the script never calls for it. So don’t expect this final curtain call to rival his instantly iconic and mesmerising portrayal of The Joker. Perhaps the best sign of his success is how much you miss Ledger when he morphs into Jonny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell at various points in the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with their individual turns, but we’ve already become invested in the character as played by Ledger. It’s similar to the feeling of watching Lazenby as Bond when you’re used to Connery. Obviously the tragic circumstances necessitated the change in casting; however I question the wisdom of doing it three times. Ledger always plays Tony in the “real” world, only becoming his fantasy alter ego inside the world of Parnassus’s magical mirror. Therefore only one new actor was called for. Surprisingly I felt Farrell did the best job, handling the dramatically meatier material of the climax with skill. Yet for me the films standout performance comes from Tom Waits as Mr Nick (aka The Devil!). Every syllable emerging via his gravely voice should be savoured. Lily Cole simultaneously lays claim to the title of “most striking visual element”, and makes a convincing transition from model to “proper” actor. Considering the whole plot revolves around her, this was no easy task.

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Casting inconsistency is a minor issue compared to the frustratingly weak narrative drive. I wasn’t lost or confused, merely indifferent to the way many ideas unfolded. A deal with the devil, a race against time, a soul stealing magic portal disguised as a travelling side show… it all sounds perfect on paper! Despite these shortcomings, there is still much to enjoy in this rambling tale. The composition of key shots rank among Gilliam’s best, even where some of the digital work is a little ropey (only in execution, not design) Anyway, perhaps everything I’ve criticised is irrelevant. It’s always much more rewarding to see a true original slightly miss the mark, rather than enduring more formulaic “Bayhem”. I’ll be sure to rediscover Parnassus on the small screen because it contains so many elements I’m predisposed to love.

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~ by thewholebuffalo on October 25, 2009.

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