Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor Parnassus…

What do you do when your leading man departs this earth part way through filming your movie? If it’s Gladiator, and Oliver Reed has sipped slipped away, you resort to some fancy digital effects. But then he wasn’t the lead.

Or – as Terry Gilliam has done with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – you recruit successors. So Heath Ledger morphs into Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. But thankfully it’s not at all like one of those cringeworthy American sundrenched soaps where a character returns after a long time away, being played by a different actor – and no-one bats an eyelid. On the contrary, the three substitutions work very cleverly with the plot, and probably enhance the whole viewing experience.

I’ve just been to the London premiere …. (Ooh get you! I know, I know.) So here is the instant review:

Never mind the imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, what about the imagination of Terry Gilliam. It’s rich and immense, and shows no sign of flagging. There’s great vivid imagery and a lot of style.

The story revolves round successive deals that Dr Parnassus makes with the devil, and attempts to wriggle out of paying the price. It’s also about making decisions, doing the right thing. The right thing is not always obvious, and a wrong choice leads to hell. Choose well though, and you and your imagination are freed, and you finally experience life in all its wonder. The route to self-discovery lies through a magic mirror into the psychedelic world of your imagination.

The most enduring and intimate relationship is between Dr Parnassus and the devil. Tom Waits is a great Mississippi beelzebub. And rather than wanting to grab as many souls as he can, or to win at all costs, it becomes apparent how much he values having a sparring partner. And how much the battle of wits staves off an eternity of boredom.

Lily Cole (yes, the tall red-headed model) pulls off acting Christopher Lee’s daughter. The woman I was with enjoyed the four incarnations of Heath Ledger. (I found myself wondering if Colin Farrell’s dodgy child-rescuing philanthropist was a sly dig at Bono or Bob Geldof. But that may just be because Colin Farrell is from Dublin too.)  I thought the set was just great – particularly the tall narrow horse-drawn ark in which the Imaginarium and cast travel.

But – for me – the film began to meander a bit too aimlessly in the parallel Salvador Dali-esque dream world. By the time Colin Farrell was being chased, I was wishing his comeuppance would hurry up and come. The suspense sagged. And then, the story having disappeared into an almost final dismal depressing wilderness, it suddenly finds its way out again to the real world, and a last minute happy ending. This lacked the chutzpah of the first two thirds of the film. It was as if Cinderella had settled down and married Buttons.

So should you go to the cinema to see it or hang on for the DVD rental?  Well… Best of all would be to see it projected onto the glass of a giant lava lamp, while under the  influence of whatever you fancy. Failing that, yes, go to the cinema. A big screen is the best place to appreciate the hugely imaginative dreamscapes. And Heath Ledger is most charming.

A note on the premiere experience: Downside – you have to wait for ages for the bally thing to begin. Upside – you’re rubbing shoulders with people off the tele, film stars and severely under-dressed young women. Oddside – seeing Andrew Garfield in the flesh only hours after having seen him in Lions for Lambs. He looks exactly the same. He also appears to be paying homage to Richard Bacon with his choice of jackets.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor Parnassus…

  1. stan

    ooh get you.
    This was a bit high brow for me, but I love your flowing style. you letting rip is sooo good.

    ooh you were got

  2. Basil Dajani

    Enjoyable review. But does even Terry Gilliam know where he is going with his career? He seems to stumble from one near disastrous project to another. He appears a persona non grata in Hollywood. You may know that he was JK Rowling’s first choice as Director of the Harry Potter films but the studios would have none of him and initially employed the creatively retarded (but Master in Accountancy) Chris Columbus. I fear that Gilliam may well end up as another of the great film iconoclasts, Ken Russell, producing low(no) budget works in his own garage…

    • blackwatertown

      Very interesting. I can’t imagine Terry Gilliam with no budget, because the elaborate sets and Heath Robinsonesque machines and dwellings are so characteristic of his work. They would not be so charming in CGI or convincing if made of cereal boxes.
      If Terry Gilliam film’s were poems, they’d be like John Masefield’s “Cargoes” – all quinqueremes – or the obscure internal workings of “The Brain of Edward Carson” by Belfast poet Ciaran Carson.

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