Whose film is it, anyway? The credits replace ‘A Terry Gilliam Film’ with ‘A Film From Heath Ledger And Friends’.
Sweet tribute, but misleading: between its dreamers, garish inner-worlds, redemptive arcs and haphazard plotting, Parnassus is pure Gilliam, whisking dashes of Brazil, Munchausen, The Fisher King and added autobiographical reflections into unruly but fitfully visionary fantasy terrain.
The core plot conjures enough whimsy and devilry to tickle fans’ fancies. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) fronts an ‘imaginarium’ – a clunking sideshow wagon and portal to punters’ reveries, aided by his daughter, 15-year-old Valentina (Lily Cole).
Their attraction is struggling to draw crowds, the guilt-ravaged Doctor struck a dodgy deal with one Mr Nick (Tom Waits) 1,000 years ago… And dues are due. Could a newcomer they rescue from near-death, the mysterious, amnesiac Tony (Ledger), offer help?
Give this to Gilliam: his solution to Ledger’s death mid-shoot is seamlessly elegant. The action cuts between today’s ‘real’ world and a florid fantasy realm accessed via the imaginarium’s faux-mirror. Heath is Tony here; Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell are alt-Tonys on the other side.
But while Tony’s role as Parnassus’ punter-puller is central to the plot, Parnassus is the key figure, mainly because he’s a through-the-mirror version of Gilliam: an old-timer serving food for the imagination despite dwindling audiences. The plot is a rollercoastering summary of Gilliam’s strengths and weaknesses, too, ranging from gloriously OTT, headtrippy sights and sounds to more slender plot trails.
With Ledger inevitably seeming restrained post- Joker, the cast is owned equally by the vigorous Plummer and Waits’ glorious snake-oil Satan. But when Gilliam’s fantasies flourish, it’s his “little sideshow act” we revel in. And his meditations on mortality and fear of obsolescence deliver much-needed emotional fuel as the story trundles, inevitably, off-track.
Gilliam’s plotting is typically ramshackle, but the fantasy visions are wondrous. Top job of rescuing Heath Ledger’s cruelly curtailed contribution, too.