Terry Gilliam’s latest effort certainly doesn’t lack in imagination. It’s hard to encapsulate all of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus because it splinters in so many directions. It’s a fable, a fantasy and a tragedy all in one – a lot like the rest of Gilliam’s work, I suppose.
It is disappointing however, and I’m not quite sure why I’m surprised. Terry Gilliam has a chequered history when it comes to coherent storytelling. He is the man that was responsible for two of my favourite films (Brazil and Twelve Monkeys), yet his efforts since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have been pretty unspectacular. Admittedly I raved about Tideland (whilst acknowledging that it was very hard to watch), though it was probably just because The Brothers Grimm had been so disappointing. With The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus we have something that is truly Gilliam, sporting all of his shortcomings as well as his successes.
The trailer managed to hide the film’s actual plot and I’m not surprised. The said Imaginarium is an old-fashioned travelling theatre company that makes its way around Britain, much to the amusement and bewilderment of the modern folk stumbling out of pubs and making their high-heeled way through ritzy department stores. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is the star of the show, though his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) is the real attraction. Their assistant Anton (Andrew McDonald) is treated like a member of the family – most inconveniently because he is in love with Valentina – and dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer) completes the troupe. When they find Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging from a bridge almost dead one night, he joins their travelling show and their topsy turvy world is turned turvy topsy.
Unfortunately, like many Gilliam films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is chaotic and sprawling in a manner that ruins the quirky ideas and wondrous fantasies afforded by the premise. We often get to go inside the Imaginarium (filled with pretty but low budget CGI landscapes) and whilst it’s kind of cool, we have no understanding of what kind of rules apply when inside. There are some neatly orchestrated flashbacks also though Gilliam makes it hard for us to reconcile them with the rest of the film.
The narrative is simply too cluttered and imbalanced. Gilliam is attracted to fantastical stories, though isn’t always too good at converting them into a coherent feature. You can make a film as wacky as you like but it still needs a solid narrative with precise character roles. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule but they are only in the minority. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus eschews such time honoured storytelling methods by confusing the audience. Are we supposed to feel like we are part of a travelling theatre ignored by the modern world or as the outsider who finds himself drawn into their world? The story boasts a couple of twists but they only serve to undermine the moments of greatness to which it aspires. And by not making it clear what rules apply in both theRating: