We’ll always have The Dark Knight…

Thom Jenkins 22 October 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – 1/5

Thom Jenkins regretfully reports that Heath Ledger’s last film was absolutely terrible

Imagine a world where nothing makes sense. Imagine clunky dialogue that takes you nowhere. Imagine being bored for just over two hours. Struggling? Not to worry; The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus can take you to cinematic lows you never thought imaginable.

Director and co-writer, Terry Gilliam, got his lucky break as an animator and, later, actor on Monty Python. This launch-pad has since allowed him to create films which were imaginative fantasies both by genre and budget.

The occasional success, such as Twelve Monkeys can hardly justify mistakes such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen costing $46 million to make but taking only $8 million in US ticket sales.

This film follows the fate of the 1000 year old Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who having made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits), is left traipsing across modern day London putting on a show few people are prepared to pay to see. For Terry Gilliam the film appears to be semi-autobiographical.

Failing to learn his lesson, Dr Parnassus makes a further deal with the Devil, which forfeits the soul of his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), upon her sixteenth birthday. That’s sad. Much of the rest of the film is spent padding out this shaky premise with grotesque cliches. That’s sadder.

One of the film’s two major strengths should have been the CGI. The imaginarium is not just a lazy high concept plot element, but also an opportunity for bleeding edge technological showmanship.

However, in common with Cole’s acting, the special effects leave much to be desired. In Cole’s defence, she is at least aesthetically pleasing, and could make a screen star yet. Here, as elsewhere, Gilliam’s “hands-off” (read: I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing) directing must take much of the blame.

The film’s second potential strength, Heath Ledger (whose untimely demise makes it difficult to be honest about how bad this film really is), waits half an hour to make his first appearance. Ledger’s character, Tony, is found unconscious, hanging from Blackfriars Bridge by his neck. Against Dr Parnassus’s better judgement, Valentina and her friend Anton (Andrew Garfield), take it upon themselves to save Tony’s life.

When Tony finally comes to he claims to have no memory of the children’s charity he founded or the four Russian men that are after him. Of course, he proceeds as anyone would in his situation; he joins the peculiar travelling show, and takes a trip into Dr Parnassus’s imaginarium as soon as is writable, never mind plausible.

It is the scenes inside the imaginarium that Ledger famously did not live to film. This monumental setback is cleverly circumvented by having the imaginarium transform Tony into three of Hollywood’s top male stars: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

Depp’s Heath Ledger impression is the most accomplished, however, he is helped by Ledger’s eerily fortuitous Johnny Depp impression while playing Tony outside the imaginarium. Farrell fares the worst of the three but by his turn the film is in such tatters that one more bad performance hardly seems relevant.

Ledger’s death plagues the film in more ways than one, with his memorial cringingly extending beyond the credits and into the film itself. Gilliam seems to think Ledger’s death was not quite widely reported enough. One such patronisingly poignant reminder has photos of Princess Diana, Rudolph Valentino and James Dean floating down a CGI river. Depp explains: “They are forever young, they won’t grow old… Nothing’s permanent. Not even death.”

Okay. We get it. Your leading man, a promising young actor, died tragically with the film only half made and you have all gallantly pulled together to finish the piece in his honour. Bravo. Can we have some plot now please?

Disappointingly, it never comes. But the river does inexplicably transform into a serpentine Tom Waits. Gilliam must hope that counts for something.

And it does, in a way. Though the Devil is yet another two dimensional caricature, Waits fills both dimensions to bursting with a performance that will certainly please his fans.

In short, the film suffers from a poor premise, poor performances and poor production. While, it was undoubtedly a brave decision to finish the film as a tribute to its late star, it may have been braver to let it die with him.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is now showing at the Arts Picturehouse.

Thom Jenkins