Out on DVD | The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – Terry Gilliam’s flights of fantasy keep tragedy-hit film aloft

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Christopher Plummer & Lily Cole appear in Terry Gilliam’s eccentric fantasy tale

Famously, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was very nearly derailed by the sudden death of Heath Ledger last January. Equally famously, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell then rallied round to step into Ledger’s shoes and save the day.

The movie finds Gilliam returning to his favourite theme: the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives. We see this in the figure of Christopher Plummer’s eponymous Doctor Parnassus, another of Gilliam’s cockeyed tale-spinning heroes.

Once a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas entrusted with weaving magical stories that nourish the human spirit, Parnassus is now a travelling showman assisted by his beautiful daughter Valentina (played – surprisingly well – by striking supermodel Lily Cole), callow young apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield) and dwarf sidekick Percy (Verne Troyer).

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Heath Ledger & Lily Cole appear in Terry Gilliam’s eccentric fantasy tale

Roaming present-day London with their ramshackle show, the troupe come across smooth-talking rogue Tony (the role played by Ledger) and rescue him from hanging. They find him dangling from the side of Blackfriars Bridge (a stone’s throw or two from Movie Talk’s home), recalling the figure of Italian financier Roberto Calvi, who was found hanged beneath the arches in 1982.

Tony takes a hand in the show, attracting audiences but provoking jealousy among the company. Meanwhile, Parnassus has made a series of deals with the devil, the slippery Mr Nick (played by gravel-voiced singer Tom Waits). And the latest pact – with Valentina’s life at stake – is due for payment…

Given its troubled production, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus hangs together remarkably well. Sure, the film is flawed, but you don’t go to a Gilliam film expecting narrative drive or coherence; you go for the director’s flights of fantasy – who else would come up with a chorus line of singing coppers in fishnet tights? Possessed of an imagination that throws off more sparks than a fizzing, spinning Catherine Wheel, Gilliam is a fabulous fabulist.

Released on 29th March.

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