Poor old Terry Gilliam. He has not had a good run of luck lately.
Watchmen, a project that he deemed “unfilmable” was indeed filmed, and fairly successfully. His adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s beloved novel Good Omens languished in development hell before being scrapped. He lost Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Chris Columbus and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was shut down in 2001 due to Jean Rochefort’s health problems. As well as all this, Tideland was overlooked and The Brothers Grimm was not well received.
And then Heath Ledger died.
Ledger had been midway through filming The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus at the time of his death and it suddenly seemed as though the Gilliam curse had struck again. Thankfully Gilliam is made of sterner stuff than that and after shutting down the film for a few weeks, and some clever rewrites, the film was back on. Only this time the film had an added burden. It had to be special.
Thankfully, the film is one of Gilliam’s best realised since Fear and Loathing. It has to be said, Gilliam’s way around the sad loss of his leading man is ingenious – Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law take over as Tony (Ledger) when he steps into the imaginarium, Tony’s appearance altered due to the person whose imagination he is in. Clever.
If his roles in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight are to be how Ledger is remembered, then this role as Tony is surely a curiosity, much as the Imaginarium itself is. Ledger is in fine form; Tony cajoles, charms and cheats his way through the film. Tony is a suicide rescued by Parnassus and his band of players, he doesn’t lose his life, but his memory suffers and it is only at the end of the film does he remember who he is.
Moving on from Ledger, Lily Cole (Valentina) manages to make the leap from model to actress admirably, and while she is still the love interest of the film she brings sweetness to a role that could have easily turned cruel. Andrew Garfield is also eye catching as the actor who loves Valentina. And in an ingenious turn of casting Tom Waits is the Devil.
The Imaginarium itself is just what you would expect from Terry Gilliam – vivid, bizarre and eyecatching. It feels almost like a return to the Monty Python days where Gilliam’s animations terrorised the screen between sketches. But this is no bad thing. If you have seen Fear and Loathing and any of the Monty Python sketches you will appreciate the weirdness of the Imaginarium. And credit where credit is due, Gilliam didn’t let the film die with Ledger, he carried on and made the fact that Tony changes his appearance when he steps into the imagined world suggest from early on in the film, that Tony is not all he seems
That said, however, Imaginarium is not perfect. Parnassus’ various deals with the Devil may be the reason that he does what he does, but the film seems to lose a little momentum toward the end, and the tide does turn against Tony rather quickly and Valentina especially, turns against him very suddenly after she has fallen for his charms.
Gilliam must be admired for carrying on with The Imaginarium as a tribute to Ledger and for making the film still work after the loss of its leading man. This could well be Gilliam’s finest work since Fear and Loathing.