The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – A Brief Review
With bigger budgets, major stars, and personal wealth, Hollywood has continued to entice successive generations of European filmmakers. Except for sporadic forays for specific projects, travel in the opposite direction has been sporadic, mostly due to political pressure, as during the McCarthy era. The U.S. has sent a few notable exiles of its own choosing or permanent exiles for the sake of artistic freedom and autonomy. There are many names that come to mind, such as Orson Welles, John Huston, Richard Lester, Stanley Kubrick, and Terry Gilliam. While previously a British citizen, Gilliam remains deeply flawed, as evident in his latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a collaboration with writer Charles McKeown (who shared an Oscar nomination with Gilliam and Tom Stoppard for Brazil).
In addition to his numerous contributions to British culture, Gilliam, now 68, has also made several of his own films, including the first several starring former Python actors. Monty Python is impossible to think of without thinking of Gilliam’s dark comics that were interspersed throughout the sketches. They incorporated surrealism and art nouveau, mixing the cruel and the whimsical in their 19th and 20th-century styles. In his own features, starting with Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, and Brazil, he has employed a satirical mix of realism and fantasy that draws on both Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain. A romantic risk-taker, he is comfortable falling flat on his face just as his characters do – the adventurous Baron Munchausen and the windmill-tilting hero of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an abandoned 1999 film.
Imaginarium is a traveling theatrical production of the Victorian era, trundled about gloomy, modern-day London on a decrepit three-story van driven by Percy (Verne Troyer). Along with Percy are the young barker and master of ceremonies Anton (Andrew Garfield), enigmatic teen Valentina (Lily Cole), who dresses out of an old costume hamper, and her boozy, ancient father, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer reprising his familiar role). A marvelous opening sequence set next to a floodlit Southwark Cathedral in Borough Market exemplifies why they’re so unpopular, as they work primarily at night and rarely leave the dimly lit Thames.
The performance is disrupted by drunken yobs, one of whom is enticed by Valentina through the mirror of the Imaginarium into a set of stage flats through the ribboned mirror in the Imaginarium. Arthur Rackham gets his revenge here in the scary Arthur Rackham forest. During their next stop between the elegant Victorian Tower Bridge and the deformed new City Hall of Norman Foster, the police make clear that Parnassus and his group are unwanted anachronisms, an impression that is backed up by subsequent police intervention.
In just a few moments, the company finds a stranger hanging over the river beneath Blackfriars Bridge, with a noose around his neck. They drive across Blackfriars Bridge and spot the shadow of a hanging man. The Hanged Man of the Tarot pack and Roberto Calvi’s execution on this very bridge are both referred to here. They also become involved with a sinister conspiracy similar to that of Calvi upon rescuing Tony Liar (Heath Ledger).
In a flashback, we discover that Parnassus was tasked with telling the stories that sustained the human spirit when he was a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas. In a deal with the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits sporting a hairline mustache and a bowler hat), obtains immortality at a terrible cost. It is obvious that Parnassus is associated with Gilliam.
Tony, the conman, takes the troupe to a dazzling Victorian venue in the City of London, Leadenhall Market, in order to transform their fortunes. As guests travel through the mirror into fabulous dreamscapes that become increasingly phantasmagoric, Ledger dies on set. He is replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, all of whom wear identical white suits and neat beards. A chorus of London cops performs a dance wearing garter belts, high heels, and stockings, a recurring skit of the outrageously gay army parade in Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different. After that, the film becomes somewhat emotionally drained and mushy, but never less visually stunning.
There are many parallels between Gilliam’s film and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, set in a disturbing London as well. It reveals much about the views of their creators as well as what brought them to Europe by coping with an oppressive state and the pressure to conform.