The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

An enchanting instalment from the romantically-skewed canon of Terry Gilliam

When your lead actor dies during the making of your movie, what do you do? For most directors, there’s a couple of obvious options. Maybe there’s enough in the can to cover the cracks with a little CGI and rush-release the thing on the back of the deceased’s ill-acquired celebrity. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board – recast, rewrite and reshoot.

If you’re Terry Gilliam, there's a third way. Rope in a host of Hollywood A-listers to assume different aspects of that same leading man, in a kind of reduced Dr Who concurrent incarnation extravaganza.

In The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus the original lead actor was of course Heath Ledger, whose untimely demise in 2008 cut short the original shooting schedule. At the time, director Gilliam was prepared to scrap the whole project.

After some judicious bullying by his daughter and producer Amy, he returned to the film and concocted the rather clever alternative, shooting many of the fantasy sequences involving Ledger’s character with Jude Law, Colin Farrell and most importantly Johnny Depp. Gilliam credits Depp with saving the whole production - he agreed to take part as a favour to both the director and the memory of Ledger, thereby safeguarding further financing for an already over-budget film.

The finished product is mostly a triumph. Anyone familiar with Gilliam’s work will understand that he thrives in adversity, be it taking on the might of Universal for Brazil, fighting budgetary constraints and script melt-down on Baron Munchausen, or challenging the fates themselves on his Don Quixote project. OK, so that last one didn’t go too well, but we got the brilliant documentary Lost in La Mancha. Out of his one and only failure something wonderful still emerged.

It often takes an element of discord to extract the best out of Gilliam’s frequently chaotic vision. With The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, we’re on the pretty familiar ground of the adult fairy tale. As in all of his films, fantasy and reality butt heads and adulthood, or a yearning to grow up, represents the recession and shrivelling of the imagination.

A travelling theatre company trundle across modern-day London, performing their charming, antiquated revue from a portable stage. They invite an array of unappreciative and often hostile locals to step into the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus to realise their wildest dreams and desires.

At the head of the company is the 1,000-year-old Dr Parnassus (a suitably crabby Christopher Plummer), who with his teenage daughter Valentina, diminutive retainer Percy and loyal employee Anton, bring their singular brand of entertainment to such jarring environments as supermarket car parks and posh shopping emporia.

But Dr Parnassus has a secret. He made a pact with the devil 1,000 years before and it’s almost time for Mr Nick (Tom Waits) to collect. If anybody could induce sympathy for the devil, it’s Waits. He is deliciously malevolent, playful and downright likeable. Waits' devil is the kind of guy you’d have a great night out with but wake up the next morning in a skip checking for the gold fillings in your teeth.

When the company discover and rescue the slippery and charming Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging from a London bridge, Dr Parnassus sees in him a way out of his predicament and a way to outwit Mr Nick.

The themes and moods of Dr Parnassus are absolutely within Gilliam’s comfort zone and in essence he’s been making this kind of movie for a long time. A doddering, decrepit, yarn-spinning Dr Parnassus could be the doddering, yarn-spinning decrepit Baron Munchausen. The choices characters have to make between wonderful, terrifying fantasy and predictable-but-safe reality reflects anything from Time Bandits to Brazil and even The Fisher King.

It is in the fantasy sequences in the Imaginarium itself where Gilliam the conceptualist really comes to the fore. People’s memories, fantasies and even faces (hence the ever-changing visage of Tony) are filtered through the mighty subconscious of Dr Parnassus with giddying and disorientating effect.

That Heath Ledger’s initial transformation into Johnny Depp in this surreal world takes a moment to sink in reveals both what a seamless job Gilliam has done in threading this potentially tricky narrative bump into the film and also his brilliantly-realised interpretation of a subconscious world halfway between dream and nightmare.

Another recurring Gilliam theme - death - looms large over the movie. It’s inevitable that it should acquire a more significant presence, even prescience in light of Ledger’s tragic demise. His first scene, where he is found hanging, presumed dead, is as chilling a reminder of the fate of the Australian star as any cheap tabloid exposé.

While Ledger is undoubtedly good as Tony, the children’s charity founder with a shady background, variously oily, seductive and even pathetic, the real acting plaudits must go to Lily Cole as Valentina and Andrew Garfield as Anton.

Cole performs better than any supermodel has a right to, making an essentially stroppy and frustrated teenage girl into an endearingly distorted angel. The camera clearly loves her, as does the costume designer, as she glides from itinerant chic (replete with roll-up fag) to fantasy power-dress with consummate elegance. Garfield, meanwhile, is brilliant as the thwarted, insecure but loveable Anton. He is the true heart of the movie, with an absolutely stunning performance which I suspect will mark the beginning an enduring association with Gilliam.

The film does have its dud moments - the idea that forming a children’s charity is the apotheosis of moral goodness is faintly ridiculous and renders Tony’s eventually-revealed villainy slightly underwhelming. And it’s never pleasant to see Colin Farrell on a forty-foot screen without advance warning. But these are minor gripes.

The ending is beautifully measured and poignant, without being maudlin – in typical Gilliam style, it’s really the beginning of another story (or stories) and ties in with the notion in the film that stories are being told all over the world, all the time.

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is yet another enchanting instalment in the romantically-skewed canon of Terry Gilliam, not to mention a perfectly fitting way to commemorate the demise of one of the better actors from Hollywood's stable. 

Joseph Nawaz

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is on at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. Click here for full details and booking.