Review of Terry Gilliam's latest opus have been generally thumbs-down. Notable exceptions include the genre magazine SFX, which was quite thumbs-uppish about it all. And I suspect this is part of the problem. While Gilliam isn't a sci-fi or fantasy director as such, he does have a huge following among us nerds.
The kind of people who can give a detailed synopsis of many Doctor Who stories or Star Trek episodes also tend to like Gilliam. This is both his glory and his curse, I suspect. The serious, arty film crowd don't quite trust Gilliam, for all his top-notch credentials. And perhaps they are right, as he doesn't seem to like them very much. In interviews he has rightly dismissed most CGI movies as boring and gimmicky, and questioned the prevailing habit of simply cobbling together bits of all your favourite movies in a sterile overblown homage. Taxi for Mr Tarantino.
Anyway, what's it all about? One thing everyone knows is that Heath Ledger died in the making of the movie and was cunningly replaced by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law. The trick works because the Imaginarium of the title is a kind of magic mirror. If people plunge into this mirror Dr Parnassus - played by the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer - lets them live in a world of their own imagination. But when things go wrong, a person's face can change thanks to a trip through the mirror. Well, I found it credible within the bounds of the film's wacky dream logic.
Indeed, it is more of a dream than a plot. There is a plot, involving Mr Nick (Tom Waits) making a series of wagers with Parnassus. When P. wins a bet he gets benefits like, say, immortality and a chance to woo a lovely lady. When he loses, though, he has problems - like sacrificing his beloved daughter Valentina (Lily Cole, rather lovely and acting well) to Mr Nick. For Mr Nick is... Tom Waits. And the Devil, obviously. Same difference. Anyway, the girl has to be handed over on her 16th birthday, which is rapidly approaching when the film begins.
The situation is complicated when the Parnassus travelling-show gang rescue Tony Shepherd, Ledger's character, who is found hanging under London bridge. (Re: being hanged, Tony has a bit for a trick up his sleeve - or rather, down his gullet.) Tony has lost his memory, and at first it seems he may be an innocent victim of nasty gangsters. But as the plot unfolds we find out more and... I'm not telling. Nor am I revealing the details of Mr Nick's final bet with Parnassus.
Those who felt the film was all show and bluster but no real thought might need to watch it a few times. I suspect I missed a great deal. It's certainly about love, morality, power, and the need to constrain our imaginations lest we be consumed by crass yearnings. Scenes in which drunken, stupid or selfish people get involved with Dr P's sideshow are telling. Firstly, do people want 'old-fashioned entertainment'? That's what the film offers, after all. (No CGI here.) Secondly, how responsible are we for the sufferings of others? Tony is rescued by strangers, but does not repay them with good deeds, though at first he seems to.
And Parnassus - well, there's a name that Gilliam may have chosen for the sound. But the Greek mountain of that name was sacred to Apollo and the Muses. This is a film about art as a sacred trust, a gift of the gods, as something that can raise us to godlike status through contemplating it. Oh, and it's also quite funny a lot of the time.