Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (4.5 stars)

Dir. Terry Gilliam (2009) 2 hours 3mins
This was a film with many strings attached; from Terry Gilliam of Monty Python lore to Christopher Plummer’s inevitable Sound of Music associations, it was destined to attract attention from the start with its cast and directing team, whatever the resulting picture.  The recent death of Heath Ledger only added another potential nail of hype to a movie under huge pressure to produce excellence at every turn.  The audience perhaps held visions of tributes to Ledger in the opening credits but the first mention of the star came as a shock.  We blinked in surprise as he appeared hanging from a London bridge.  Surely Gilliam could not be serious; could he expect nail-bombs through the post from die-hard fans for an appalling lack of sensitivity throughout the film?  Luckily not. Seldom do such politically incorrect turns as this and a dwarf painted to look like a Victorian Golly doll pass unnoticed.  This, however, was the director who made Monty Python acceptable to the BBC bosses. Once again he delivered whistle-stop entertainment without compromising on wit and originality and the film was too good to let its few minor drawbacks detract from its quality. 
As Russian mafia, tarot cards, a magic mirror and some exotic (if unstable) accents dressed up in full costume as a travelling show, a romp through back-street London turns into a tale of choice between the devil and God, moral good and bag, eternity and death. Unlike several sacreligious books-made-films to be released in cinemas later this year the plot was clever, intriguing and avoided losing us.  The pace didn’t let up nor did the attention to detail.  It somehow made sense for Heather Ledger to become Johnny Depp to  become Jude Law; not until the final ‘confrontation’ between did the use of a devil (or should he have been death?) and Dr.Parnassus wear a little thin.  Their relationship was the only one in the film which lacked real energy.  Lily Cole was good enough and her co-stars all delivered stable performances, all  meriting their place in the season’s most anticipated mainstream feature. 
The sub-continental mystique of elephant icons and henna face-markings was entertaining but unexplained and one final negative came from Gilliam’s occasional failure to recognise when his onscreen picture had gone just that bit far into dreamland.  The saturation of colour on our screen could only be described as saccharin at times.  But Parnassus was more Luhrmann than ludicrous in this respect and danced the fine line between cartoon and adult fantasy without success.  The graphics here are outstanding and the film boasts seamless CGI effects and imaginative storyboarding that Parnassus himself would have been proud of. 
Speaking of pride, Gilliam should be very proud of what he and his team have made here.  Fans of Ledger will not be disappointed but people who could not care less about the suffocating hype that has followed this movie to its UK release.  It promises a fantastic two hours that go surprisingly quickly.