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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

A film by Heath Ledger and friends — Written by cosmobrown on 26.10.2009

Poor old Terry Gilliam. Has any film-maker ever had worse luck than Terry Gilliam? Here's a history lesson for you; Brazil was taken out of his hands, butchered by the studio and released to little or no fanfare. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen went wildly over budget and then failed to recoup much due to a complete lack of marketing by it's studio. Then you have his aborted attempt at The Man who Killed Don Quixote (as documented in the excellent Lost in La Mancha), which fell victim to massive floods and the injury, and later death, of his main star. This constant studio interference and bad luck led Gilliam underground, making bizarre yet effective films like Tideland. However, Gilliam was all set for a return to mainstream prominence with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. A big name cast on board, a decent budget, what could go wrong? Well, how about the tragic and unexpected death of Heath Ledger halfway through production? The project seemed doomed. To Gilliam's credit, he had the artistic ingenuity and creative foresight to finish the film in a uniquely clever way, and finally we have a new Terry Gilliam film on our cinema screens. So, is it any good? Well, yes and no. If I was to say that it is a typical Terry Gilliam film would be a fair summation. By this I mean it is a visually resplendent, incredibly creative, fantastically enjoyable mess. Gilliam splurges originality all over the screen, with stunning images, ideas and moments to remember. There are moments of cleverness, moments of humour, moments of Monty Python-esque surreality, and there are also moments of headscratching uncertainty. Gilliam (and co-writer Charles McKeown) seems to know where he wants the story to go, but lacks conviction and confidence in safely guiding it there. So sometimes the films meanders and stalls, dragging points out when it doesn't need to. That being said, the film is a treat, for the eyes, for the ears and for the brain. The ensemble cast are all superb; Christopher Plummer as the titular character, the beautiful Lily Cole shows that some models can act, Andrew Garfield is a future star and Tom Waits steals the show. And what of Heath Ledger? As to be expected, he is superb and his role is larger than I had expected. It's with a tinge of sadness as I watched a future talent fulfulling his potential knowing that he would never grace our screens again. When Ledger died, his buddies Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell jumped in to volunteer their services and help Gilliam finish the film (and, in a classy move, donated their earnings to Ledger's daughter). This plot device, though forced by tragedy, actually works so seamlessly and brilliantly that it's impossible to imagine the film without it. So all in all, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is a visual cornucopia of big ideas and kaleidoscopic images, not all of which work. However, it has more originality than a hundred other Hollywood films combined and that is something to be applauded. Terry Gilliam is one of the last true original storytellers left and hopefully long may he prosper. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus- A film by Heath Ledger and friends.

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