Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is thousands of years old and travels London with his imaginarium – a fairground attraction that boasts archaic entertainment on its rickety frame. But step behind its on-stage mirror and Parnassus’ power will cast you into a world of his – or maybe your – imagining.
Parnassus is plagued by the devil (Tom Waits) to whom he lost a bet years ago: that if Parnassus ever had a daughter, she’d belong to the devil at age 16. As her birthday approaches, Parnassus renegotiates the wager: he and Mr Nick must race to win five souls, with Valentina the prize. Valentina’s lovelorn suitor (an irritating Andrew Garfield, Red Riding) smells a rat – and thinks Valentina has found one when she rescues a hanging man, Tony (Ledger), from under a London bridge.
Imaginarium is a Gilliam film, no question. But while in Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing Gilliam made his imagination mean something to most moviegoers, his latest film is a bit of a mess. Overburdened by riotous images barely reined-in by his producer daughter Amy Gilliam, it’s an effervescent but indigestible affair.
Ledger’s death part way through is a contributing factor. Gilliam subsequently cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as Ledger’s mirror-world selves and it works to a point. But Ledger’s leavening influence (London accent and all) is badly missed.
The script didn’t require reworking and the basic ideas remained. So the flaw is Gilliam’s own – a surfeit of ideas blended like the doozy of a cocktail. Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory interiors (flowing rivers and glowing colours) collide with a stupendously ill-judged Pythonesque sing-song by policemen in tutus scaring off some Russian mobsters.
But some images are inspired. Tony’s hanging body first seems to be a shadow on the water, waving. Scenes in which justice – or the truth – pursues the criminal – is crackingly done, as floors collapse, contract and disappear.
Imaginarium is an upended ragbag of every idea Gilliam’s had, from Python to the present. Lacking the coherence of Baron Munchausen or even Brazil, this is simply a set of surprising, sometimes breathtaking images chucked together.
Add to this some ill-advised ad-libbing (well done by Ledger, botched by Garfield) and director Gilliam is like Parnassus himself: an imagination out of control. If you like dazzling images, and off-the-wall humour, it’s a blast. And it’s poignant to see glimpses of the legend that Ledger might have been. But if you like your flights of fancy more firmly tethered to a funny - if fantastic - plot, it sells you short.
“I often feel I make a film in order to find out what I’m making” Gilliam has said. This sums up Parnassus perfectly.