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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (12A) ★★★★
A traveling theater company gives its audience much more than they were expecting.

Terry Gilliam's latest offering comes with a very difficult burden to bear. Its a daring and at times dazzling film that shows Gilliam has been re-energised to display one of his most visually brilliant films of recent times. Unfortunately though it is Heath Ledgers last on-screen appearance and its this that the audience needs to get past.

Firstly the story. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is over a thousand years old and is travelling the world with his imaginarium, a place where people can enter and witness their wildest dreams come true all controlled by Parnassus's mind. He also has his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and his two assistants Percy (Vern Troyer) and Anton (Andrew Garfield) in tow with him on this journey. While on their way to perform one of their nightly shows they save a mysterious stranger Tony (Heath Ledger) from being hanged underneath a bridge. Tony has no memory or how he came to be hanged so Parnassus takes him under his wing and Tony begins to re energise their show. In addition Parnassus is having to contend with The Devil (Tom Waits) who you learn has made a deal with him that in exchange for his daughter's soul at sixteen Parnassus will be granted eternal life.

The story moves along at a merry pace, intertwining the fantasy world of imagination with the mean streets of London so that your not stuck in one for too long awaiting the other. The characters are as kooky as you would expect in a Terry Gilliam movie and this is where Heath Ledger comes in.

Ledger plays Tony with gusto, giving him a crazy edge and wild eyed stare while all the while giving the character a grounded reality. Its not a fantastic performance as in The Dark Knight, its a perfectly acted and confident portrayal and this is what the audience need to get past. Ledger's swan-song, the film he will really be remembered for is The Dark Knight, there is no Joker in this performance and I fear this is what people will be expecting when they visit this move. If you go in expecting this to be a Heath Ledger film you will be disappointed, he shares his screen time with the rest of the cast who, to be fair, match him equally.

Christopher Plummer is great as Parnassus, drunk most of the time but also gentle and full of love for his daughter. Lily Cole plays Valentina who excels at creating an innocence and confidence in the role that really keeps you connected with her. Tom Waits and Andrew Garfield are equally brilliant and hold their own against the quality on display. Its these characters where the real drama and tension is, It's Ledger's job to bring them all together.

Now due to Ledger's death his sequence's in the imaginarium had to be filled in by Johhny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell who take on the role of Tony while he is in this fantasy world. This inadvertently helps the film and really works making you realise that there may be more than meets the eye to Tony. Maybe the film might not have worked as well had Ledger completed all his role? Who knows, but in this case the film definitely benefits from the addition of the three other stars.

Now onto Gilliam, the master behind the madness. As mentioned this a director reborn if you will, its the first film he's story-boarded since Baron Münchhausen and its shows throughout. The film visually is astounding, Parnassus's medieval horse-drawn caravan played against modern day Britain is a high point and the imaginarium feels like you've slipped into a Beatles music video on acid. The fantasy world is filled with Gilliam-isms and shows that his imagination is still as creative as it was back at his peak with Brazil and the Python animations. Gilliam most defiantly has found his mojo again and directs with a confidence that at more recent times has seemed to be lacking.

So Heath Ledger's final film is a triumph, but its important to remember that its only made so because of the rest of the cast and more importantly the director. Ledger made The Dark Knight the great film it was, with Parnassus he's collaborated with others to make this one work. Ledger is a talent that will most defiantly be missed.