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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Blu-ray Review - -

Feature 7.5
Video 8.5
Audio 8.5
Special Features 7.0
Total 7.5

Distributor: Sony
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Reviewer: Simon Black
: M15+


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Few directors have been beset by such persistent tribulations as Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Fisher King).  The beleaguered filmmaker’s disastrous attempts to film Don Quixote were detailed in all their woeful glory in Lost in La Mancha, and over the course over shooting this Parnassus both the film’s lead actor and its producer passed away.  Gilliam himself was struck by a car and suffered a cracked vertebra, causing him to quip that ‘They got the star, the producer, and they were going for the director.’ 

The star in question was, of course, Heath Ledger, and once the dust had settled on his untimely demise Gilliam made the decision to forge ahead with the production.  Only a third of Ledger’s scenes had been shot, and it was decided that not one but three actors would step in to fill Ledger’s shoes.  This decidedly talented trio consisted of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, and each eschewed formal payment for the role, instead placing their fee in trust for Ledger’s young daughter Matilda, who was left out of an early draft of her father’s will. 

Having four actors portraying the same character isn’t a premise that could plausibly work in many films, but luckily with its colour, craziness and kaleidoscopic absurdity Parnassus ensures the wild conceit comes across as perfectly believable.  

The titular doctor, portrayed by Christopher Plummer, is the leader of a travelling theatre troupe which includes Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer and UK model-actress Lily Cole as the doctor’s daughter Valentina.  Plummer’s Parnassus is beset at all times by the Devil (Tom Waits), who has granted the doctor immortality and intends on taking his daughter Valentina as payment on her sixteenth birthday. 

One night the troupe discovers a stranger (Heath Ledger) hanging underneath a bridge.  They rescue and revive him, as the mysterious stranger starts to regain his memories the sideshow’s magic mirror, a device for entering the land of dreams and unconsciousness, sends all who enter it on the most unlikely of adventures. 

Infused with Gilliam’s trademark visual flair, Parnassus is a film of near-unrivalled optical splendour.  Taking myriad influences from the likes of artists such as Salvador Dali and Grant Wood, Gilliam creates a realm of the senses that is at once painterly, abundantly lush and near-unlimited in its scope.  The dreamscapes are necessarily heavy on the CGI, which it must be said is hit and miss: when it works it’s brilliant; when it doesn’t it’s distracting and even jarring. 

Balancing any lapses in the visual spectacle however are some extremely solid, even career-defining performances.  Plummer is brilliantly convincing as the sozzled old raconteur, as are Troyer, Cole and Garfield as the members of his ragtag troupe.  A grizzly and surprisingly nuanced Waits growls his way through the role he was born to play, and the Depp-Law- Farrell triumvirate puts a fresh and lively spin on the Ledger character. 

Ledger is, it must be said, the film’s weak link.  His accent is appalling; one minute he’s a cockney geezer, the next he sounds as though he’s ordering a beer in an outback pub.  You never for a moment lose yourself in his performance, and when you’ve got an actor the likes Johnny Depp playing the same role in the same film Ledger’s manifest deficiencies become even more glaring.  He might have been able to mumble his way through Brokeback Mountain but here he just sounds ridiculous and amateurish. 

But back to the film’s strong points.  The Blu-ray transfer is immaculate, with impeccable levels of clarity and stunningly vibrant cinematography throughout.  The scenes in the mirror-world feel, for the most, expansive and magical, and the excellent performances balance the film’s many out-there moments.   The HD Master Audio is lively, and the multi-faceted score really comes alive in surround.   

There are plenty of special features; the film comes with an optional three-minute introduction by Gilliam, and there’s a spirited and informative director’s commentary as well.  There’s Heath Ledger’s wardrobe test, several featurettes on the effects, production and design, and interviews with Gilliam and several cast members including Ledger.  There’s also a 12-minute UK Premiere featurette, several deleted scenes with optional commentary and an impressive multi-angle featurette that demonstrates a special effects sequence from four separate perspectives. 

Blu-ray is really the only way to experience The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  In addition to being Gilliam’s best film in years it boasts an intricate plot, compelling screenplay, lavish special effects and a host of memorable characters.  Sound and picture quality never falter in the HD format, and regardless of what this humble reviewer thought of Ledger’s performance the film remains an engaging and highly worthy resting place for our Heath. 


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