TIFF 09 Review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus


A question: “Where are we – geographically, socially, narratively?”
A snappy reply: “The northern hemisphere, on the margins, further to go.”

There are three great surprises of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The first is that Terry Gilliam is back in top form, weaving the contemporary and the fantastical into a whimsical and dark package. Despite the death of Heath Ledger occurring in the middle of production, that which forced the subsequent hiring of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to complete the part, works charmingly well in the film. This second surprise is so deeply woven into the plot that it looks like this was the intent all along. The third one, perhaps the most surprising of the bunch, is that Terry Gilliam has commandeered the digital effects so effectively that the film retains its nostalgia simultaneously to looking modern. The films deceptively simple plot forms serves to evoke the best of former Python’s directorial work and at the same time (or so I am told) close up a loose trilogy of the imagination starting with fragile innocence of Time Bandits, carrying forward to the full blown exuberance contained in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and reflecting on mortality, wisdom (with more than a hint of melancholy) with Dr. Parnassus.

The story follows the eponymous Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer at his most sublime) and his raggedy show which consists of his long-time companion Percy (Verne Troyer), his 15 year old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and her friend Anton (Andrew Garfield). They travel around London attempting to rejuvenate the imaginations via the Doctors magic mirror to whomever is willing to drop a few shillings in the basket. Despite the decrepit poverty of the bunch, this is not idle amusement. Dr. Parnassus has a deal going with the Devil (Tom Waits embodies pure Machiavellian fun in this plum role) involving the betting on peoples souls in the world behind the mirror. One of the conditions of the deal is the good Doctors immortality, the other involving his daughter on her sixteenth birthday. In drops Tony, played by Heath Ledger and morbidly introduced hung by the neck (although he dangles as if waltzing on air) and referred to ‘the hanging man’ via tarot cards. Revived by Parnassus’ travelling players he becomes the narrative wild card and eventually the lynch-pin to the fiendish wager between the Devil and the Doctor as it escalates during the birthday countdown.

Taking storytelling and imagination to great heights, while simultaneously reflecting on the value of shooting for the stars, this might just Gilliam’s most self-reflective movie. Contradictions such as the immortality Pernassus and the repeated statement that ‘nothing is permanent’ embody the spirit (and modus operandi) of this particular story teller. Heath Ledger’s death was both a major obstacle in the realization of the film; misfortunes of this kind seem to follow Gilliam whatever he does, whether it be the financing, health of star Jean Rochefort and extreme weather of his failed Don Quixote project (which not surprisingly has been revived once again), or the executive interference on Brothers Grimm and Brazil. It ups the ante on making the whole thing work, which miraculously becomes a boon to the film, not just in inevitable bonus box-office from the ghoulishly curious folks showing up in the wake of all the E! coverage of Ledgers death, but because the circumstances forced on Gilliam by the loss of his star has yielded an interesting visual and narrative avenue with the character of Tony. It works. There is a joyous sloppiness to all of Gilliam’s films, not unlike his Monty Python animations, and here harnessed without being neutered. In short, the actor-swap-idea looks planned from the get go, making the Imaginarium of Dr. Pernassus and impressive artistic revivification.

As much as every eye will be on Ledger during the duration of the film, it is really Christopher Plummer who steals the show as the drunk and cantankerous Doctor. A man who realizes the pickle he has put himself into with both noble and selfish intentions. He carries the weight of his many, many years yet has a desperate optimism buried down deep, and Plummer brings all of his talent to bear in a subtle realization of an interesting character. Similarities of Dr. Parnassus to the director is entirely intentional. There are plenty of storytelling horizons to explore. Ahem. ‘Further to go.’

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.


  1. This is such great news. I was a bit worried about Gilliam for a second there. Glad to hear he has learnt to masetr CGI too now.. that was the worst part of the Brothers Grimm I think.

  2. Glad you liked it Kurt. I was a bit disappointed myself, but I lay the blame on my expectations. The CG kind of took me out of it for the most part, as I was (foolishly) hoping for practical effects on the scale and scope of Maunchausen. I was never truly blown away by the mirror world – at least as much as the characters were.

    I really can't wait to see it again though.

    I should add that I love Tideland, so Gilliam was already in top form as far as I was concerned.

  3. Peter – you and I are on the same page here when it comes to both Imaginarium & Tideland. Though I really enjoyed Imaginuarium, I wasn't taken away by it. Love the set design and the feeling of the fantastical but overall, the story did very little for me and though it features some good performances (Waits is excellent though I was more excited to see Peter Stormare make an appearance) I found some of the others lacking energy – I love Andrew Garfield but his performance here is a shadow of his previous roles. Overall I enjoyed it but didn't love it.

  4. It has its moments and I guess I enjoyed some of what was there, but it's a really stumbling narrative that makes for pretty nonsensical story telling. Agree Kurt that the use of different actors was seamless and made it look like that was the intent from square one.

    But generally I didn't really get into any of the characters, didn't feel like I understood them and ultimately didn't care (Lily Cole is flat as can be for a main character).

    The CGI is unlike Gilliam's previous works and while there's some great imagination at work, it doesn't realy add much to the story. It just kind of is.

  5. @Andrew, "stumbling narrative that makes for pretty nonsensical story telling"

    Holding that as a fault of Gilliam is like holding 'slow and quiet' against Malick. It is simply a part of how he tells stories.

    • No, there is a difference between being vague and slightly nonsensical and just being jerky and clunky. We're here, and then we're here. Then we're here and then we're back to here again – without much explanation as to why or why I should care. More on tomorrow Cinecast.

  6. Should be an interesting contrast with Daybreakers, which is only interested in getting to the next chapter and slicks things to the point of where you simply ask, "what is the point?"

    Ah well, Willem Dafoe is a hoot though.

  7. "Holding that as a fault of Gilliam is like holding ’slow and quiet’ against Malick. It is simply a part of how he tells stories."

    At the same time you could excuse a laundry list of bad films by this logic.

  8. I actually thought that for Gilliam, it was pretty straight-forward and sensical. I did think the end started to get a little out of hand, but overall I quite enjoyed it. In terms of sheer imagination and inventiveness, I'm not sure Gilliam has too many rivals.

  9. @Goon, because that one sentence is not operating in a vacuum. Gilliam seems to have something else operating in the mix, his reflection and digging into the nature of why we need fantasy and stories and whatnot (see also TimeBandits, Munchausen, Brazil, etc. but also Guellermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II) makes the free-form sloppy storytelling a strength rather than a weakness.

  10. From a recent email:

    "It's hard to say what the problem is with it exactly because it's just one big problem whose tinier pieces work on their own. But it's a loose globule of nice ideas that go nowhere but ooze around to see what cracks and corners it will fit in and then it just feels bloated and disjointed. Ultimately succumbing to Gilliam just saying, 'that's good enough! print and copy!'"


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