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May 8, 2017

‘Imaginarium’ has plenty of imagination, not enough sense


“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is a film with endless vision, and very little sight as to where it’s going. The latest project by director Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) continues his legacy of creating unique worlds which operate only within themselves. The film also marks the last cinematic appearance of the late Heath Ledger, and while his performance is substantial, the film is a lackluster curtain call.

As the film opens, a rickety horse-drawn cart pulls up under a bridge in a seedy section of London, outside a local pub. As patrons of the bar stumble out, the cart transforms into a Victorian-esque stage. Passers-by are invited to enter the mind of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). 

A particularly drunken patron attempts to enter without paying the entrance fee, and runs through a “mirror.” When he emerges on the other side, he has been transported to a dream-like world. It is at this point that the film proves that nothing is what it seems. “Imaginarium,” however, isn’t content to remain subtle on this fact: it continues to beat it into the heads of each member of the audience.

While traveling over a bridge, a group discovers a man dangling by a rope. Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), and his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) rescue the hanging man. While he at first has amnesia, the audience later learns that his name is Tony (played variously by Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farell).

Tony joins the troupe’s traveling show, assumedly to repay them for saving his life, but it’s hard to tell. With the help of Tony, they transform their act and begin to attract more customers than ever. Their formerly meager profits soar. Yet, all is not well.

In addition to the Doctor’s financial woes, he has made a wager with the sinister Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits with suspicious ease). Whether or not Mr. Nick is a representation of the devil is of little importance, as are many of the details of the story. And this is the film’s main downfall.  

There are so many twists and turns in the plot that not only are they hard to keep track of, but sometimes they can be missed altogether. The nature of Mr. Nick and Parnassus’ wager seems to constantly shift, to the point where it is difficult to distinguish which one is winning. Gilliam presents a world that seems very concerned with rules, yet the film seems to have none.

In addition, “Imaginarium” has no sense of logical progression. It backs up, flashes forward, switches worlds, doubles over on itself and back again. The film is like a mobius strip, frequently starting in one place, but never traveling to a logical endpoint. And the audience can never be expected to understand how it got there.

This is not to say the film is entirely bad. The performances are quite effective, particularly with the various Tony characters. Gilliam’s visuals, however, steal the show. Parnassus’ traveling theatre looks like the love-child of a Victorian playhouse and Howl’s moving castle. Each imagination presented in the mind of Parnassus provides a hallucinogenic – and often comic – feast for the eyes. Yet it is easy to tell that these aesthetics were the primary focus of the movie’s production. No other component of the film is composed with the same attention to detail, and as a result, it feels imbalanced.

“Parnassus” is best suited to an audience with godlike suspension of disbelief. The film not only travels to a fantasy world unlike our own, it also abandons a logical sense of cause-and-effect. As a result, it is near impossible to follow. If only one could enter the mind of Terry Gilliam, maybe “Parnassus” would be more enjoyable.

Nick Ortolani can be reached at

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