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The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

Year: 2009
Production Co: Davis Films
Director: Terry Gilliam
Producer: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer

Few directors are as unlucky. If it isn't inclement weather in his Don Quixote movie (chronicled painfully in Lost in La Mancha) or the studio interference of The Brothers Grimm, the nadir came when a leading man riding the crest of a wave of popular and critical acclaim died suddenly mid shoot.

The zeitgeist of Heath Ledger's premature passing threatened to overshadow the rest of the film and give it a gloomy car crash quality, and it would have been nice for both he and Gilliam for this movie to be the crowning achievement in both their careers.

Instead it's a shambolic, amateurish mess with too many bad points to be a good movie. The first is a visual aesthetic that - though it's hard to believe - may have been too big for him. The sweeping innerscapes of the minds of those who go through Dr Parnassus' (Plummer) mirror could only be done with CGI, and there's an oversupply of it, Gilliam's signature style hijacked by the cartoony quality that overran the latter Star Wars films.

Even more distinctive however is the first draft quality of the whole thing, the acting and dialogue so poor at times I thought I was watching the cast jam in early rehearsals.

The disconnect between the old world travelling circus tone of Parnassus and his coterie and modern London is too vast, Ledger not belonging to either one. The gulf between tones renders it ironically completely toneless and all over the place.

The premise behind the 1,000 year old showman and his covered wagon rumbling around London putting on shows for punters isn't bad, and suits Gilliam down to the ground. He gets to include a buxom young girl (the angel-faced Cole) and a lovestruck teenager. But Ledger is the odd man out as an industrialist they rescue from under a bridge after Russian mobsters have tried to hang him. Why he had to come into the story, what he contributes and what he really has to do with it I never really worked out.

The show's centrepiece is a mirror one can walk through and find oneself in one's own imagination (or maybe Parnassus' imagination - I never figured that out either). Gilliam salvages things admirably by casting Depp, Law and Farrell as Tony's various incantations inside the mirror, and the transition after Ledger's death was seamlessly rewritten.

But none of that stops the film from having some Gilliam-esque flourishes but no real presence that stays with you.

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