Terry Gilliam’s last film, 2005’s impenetrable downer Tideland, was a toxic tub of brain-boiling brown acid. Imaginarium is just as acid-fried, but it’s far more Woodstock than Altamont, a woozy funhouse ride through another of the director’s cartoon kingdoms. Christopher Plummer stars as the 1,000-year-old proprietor of the titular Imaginarium, a deceptively threadbare travelling sideshow in modern-day London. Wizened and cosmic, the good doctor routinely makes Faustian deals with his favourite adversary, Mr Nick (a pitch-perfect Tom Waits in a John Waters greasetache). His last, a love-for-immortality bargain, has come to fruition, and now the doc’s teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) hangs in the balance.
Meanwhile, Parnassus’ already weird-enough show – a life-altering wonderland that allows punters to explore their deepest desires – is made even odder when a mysterious stranger, Tony (Heath Ledger), joins the doc’s merry band of loons. A wild race down the rabbit hole ensues.
While Ledger’s performance is fine, his character is more sideshow than main attraction. The actor’s death, of course, became the film’s major talking point, but the narrative survives his absence. In fact, Gilliam’s choice to fill in the gaps with quirky doppelgängers – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell – makes perfect sense, since many of Tony’s scenes take place in the subjective rubber-reality of the Imaginarium.
But that is also this ambitious movie’s major sticking point: virtually anything goes in this grungy, clockwork madhouse, so holding on to some sliver of coherence is a fruitless effort. Still, the sumptuous dreamworlds are impressive.
It seems fairly reasonable to assume that Imaginarium, at its core, is autobiographical. After all, Gilliam himself is a mad genius who shows off fathomless wonders to wistful dreamers like ourselves. In that respect, it’s one hell of a vanity project. Sadly, it’s not much more than that.
Extras-wise, the only Blu-exclusive is a multiangle feature unavailable at press time. A good chunk of the remainder inevitably comprises sincere cast/crew tributes to Ledger, but it’s the snatches of the man himself that distinguish the set. Footage of a wardrobe test sees the actor flirting with the camera – winking, smirking. “You can see how much fun he was having,” sighs Gilliam, an observation poignantly underlined by a 2007 radio interview with the star: “The only time that I’m alive and living and feeling and relating, is when I’m on set…”