SC reviews: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

By Shu ChiangMovies - 28 January 2010 4:30 PM | Updated 4:56 PM

SC reviews: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

If it were a world without imagination, or great stories, it just wouldn’t be a world worth living in.

This seems to be a philosophy that director Terry Gilliam, he of Monthy Python fame, lives by, and something that he extols through his cinematic works.

Anyone who’s seen Brazil or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen can attest to the fact that Gilliam loves fantastic, and fantastical, stories, and that he is adept at telling them.

In his latest offering, Gilliam pitches the age-old battle of good versus evil as a struggle over stories, fables that literally keep the world in existence, for they allow humans to rise above their mundane everyday lives.

It is a stunningly rendered film, with some mind-boggling scenes that are Gilliam’s trademark. Witness the scene in which levitating monks chant stories in a massive cavern, only to have their lips sealed by a mysterious interloper.

Or a world of ladders where a key character tries to stilt-walk his way through the clouds, away from his enemies. There are too many worthwhile scenes to describe, and to do so with words is really doing them a disservice.


The greasy mystery man, an embodiment of the devil known as Mr Nick, is played with real aplomb by Tom Waits, and his opponent in a struggle that spans centuries is a former monk known as Doctor Parnassus (an initially unrecognisable Christopher Plummer).

Mr Nick grants the good doctor eternal life, and throughout the ages, they wager over souls. True to form, he constantly shifts the goal posts, so to speak, and the doctor has to continue to make deals with the devil.

As the film opens, it is modern-day England, and the doctor leads a troupe of performers in a crude, anachronistic travelling show, where they attempt to lure passers-by into a magic mirror that leads into the doctor’s mind—while he is meditating—where they can decide the fate of their souls for themselves.

Sounds trippy, doesn’t it? One of the best things about a Gilliam movie is that it really whisks you away into another world; it is truly an exhilarating exercise in escapism.

In a uniformly fine ensemble performance, Waits and Plummer are joined by the late Heath Ledger, eye-catching as the wild-card character who may tip the struggle one way or another, and the model-actress Lily Cole, who is radiant as the doctor’s spunky daughter, whose soul is coveted by the devil.

Andrew Garfield and Verne ‘Mini-Me’ Troyer round out what would have been the original key cast. But as you may know, Ledger died while this film was in production.

With no little ingenuity, Gilliam’s script was tweaked—additional scenes were also shot—such that Ledger’s character could transform in the course of the movie into various iterations played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

The result is in keeping with the slippery edginess of the plot, which weaves from reality to fantasy, and back time and again, with relish. In short, the filmmakers found a clever way to retain and honour Ledger’s participation, and bring the film to completion.

The film is a visual treat, frequently overflowing with a brash originality that will keep you anticipating the next twist. While some of the special effects scenes tend to linger a tad too long, and the ending isn’t all that satisfying, this is a journey most definitely worth taking.

It is at times outrageous, inspired, cheeky and hilarious, and frequently unlike anything you’ve seen in a long while.

About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.

"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
-- Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III

Heath Ledger’s last film is a marvellous adventure, an escapist fantasy of top order from director GilliamHeath Ledger’s last film is a marvellous adventure, an escapist fantasy of top order from director Gilliam