“Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all immediately,” advises a character near the beginning of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This being a Terry Gilliam film there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t understand it all by the end, either. Typically, for Gilliam, the new movie is a mess, but I found it a much more enjoyable, endearing mess than some of his previous efforts. At its worst, Gilliam’s much-vaunted inventiveness can take the form of tiresome battering of the viewer, but, for all its manic moments, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhat more measured in its moods. Thematically, the film’s pitting of the imagination against the machinations of the devil remains rather hazy, but the most effective moments here have an exhilarating dream logic. Of course the film is destined to be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last movie; fans of the actor will no doubt find his “resurrection” in his first scene here upsetting and moving. (Or maybe comforting?) It’s not every film that could get away with re-casting a part three times over, but Ledger’s morphing into Johnny Depp then Jude Law then Colin Farrell is as logical as anything else that happens in this movie.
The casting elsewhere is also superb: I loved Christopher Plummer’s Lear-ish immortal Parnassus; Lily Cole as his daughter (accurately described as “scrumptious,” this extraordinary-looking actress, fresh from Rage, should always play characters with names like Valentina); and a wheezing Tom Waits as the devil. There are magical moments throughout - Depp waltzing with Maggie Steed on a waterlily; Law’s staircase-to-the-clouds becoming a pair of stilts - and the film’s use of London locations is wonderful as well. Gilliam has been quoted as saying that he wanted “to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get.” In its best passages, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus achieves exactly that.