Any picture associated with directorial visionary Terry Gilliam is always going to rouse the public’s attention, yet the tragic death of Heath Ledger midway through filming has ensured that the name “Doctor Parnassus” has been on everyone’s radar for more than 18 months. Much has been made of Gilliam’s fervent determination to finish the film and particularly the ingenious casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill Ledger’s void. Gilliam executes it with gusto, and — as should be expected from such an auteur — transports the audience into a visually fantastical world tinged with a didactic message about the importance and power of the imagination.
The eponymous Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a mysterious showman plying his trade as part of a traveling troupe, whose attraction lies in the doctor’s ability to evoke the depths of the imagination of those willing volunteers who dare to venture into his magic mirror. Despite being ably (and sometimes grudgingly) assisted by the beautiful Valentina (in an admirable performance by Lily Cole), runaway Anton (Andrew Garfield) and faithful sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer), the doctor is a troubled soul who seeks solace in the bottle. So when the creepy Mr. Nick (a pitch-black Tom Waits) appears apparently eager to settle a long-held debt, the doctor is forced to reveal a shocking secret. It soon emerges that the doctor is a perennial gambler who effectively made a deal with the devil; youth, immortality and true love but at the expense of the bounty, his daughter Valentina. Never one to shirk a gamble, Mr. Nick brokers a new bet with the doctor that could save Valentina. So, enlisting the help of morally ambiguous stranger Tony (Heath Ledger), the doctor sets out to outdo Mr. Nick in a delectable game of one-upmanship in a race to entice five souls.
Now Gilliam’s forte obviously lies in creating outlandish magical universes as evidenced in “Time Bandits” and “Brazil,” so it should come as no surprise that he delivers some outstanding Monty Pythonesque visual vistas every time we venture behind the magic mirror. Behind the mirror, Depp, Law and Farrell appear as different manifestations of Tony, with Farrell in particular lording it as the most corrupt incarnation of his character. While this is an ultimately successful solution to Ledger’s lamentable absence, the fantasy sequences do draw things out slightly, although Charles McKeown and Gilliam’s amusing screenplay ensures there is enough to enjoy here aside from the visuals. The casting is spot on, too, with Plummer impressive as the gruff drunk doctor and Cole showing considerable promise as Valentina; and whilst Ledger’s accent is a little shaky, he’s clearly reveling in his role as the crooked Tony. One quibble would be that Gilliam doesn’t keep a tight enough grip on the story; and as a result, the pace is a little off, with the plot “happening” rather than developing in any way. Yet, given that what transpires is essentially enjoyable escapist nonsense, it’s a minor criticism.
(originally features at www.criticsnotebook.com on 15/10/09)