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Alison Wilde reviews the latest Terry Gilliam film - The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus / 12 November 2009

Actor Christopher Plummer plays Dr Parnassus

Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus went on general release in October 2009

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus went on general release in October 2009. It was directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. It stars Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield and Tom Waits, with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

For me, the imperfections of this film add to its pleasures. It is not the easiest story to follow. I had to watch it twice to appreciate the many tales that were being told within a complex narrative. This however seems entirely in keeping with a film which, above all else, is a hymn to the power of storytelling and the possibilities of the human imagination.

This is most obviously seen in the magical powers of the Imaginarium itself - Doctor Parnassus’s travelling theatre and the land of imagination behind its mirrored doors. Stepping through these doors, audiences enter into the depths of their own imaginations, channelled by Doctor Parnassus’s hallucinatory trances.

Featuring Verne Troyer as Percy, Doctor Parnassus’s wise, long-suffering assistant, I was particularly interested in seeing whether disabled characters’ stories would be told. Let’s face it, people of restricted growth seldom fare well in fairy tales.

I wasn’t disappointed. This is an ensemble piece, where the characters’ lives are intertwined in both reality and fantasy. Percy has a place in several tales of morality where his status as a disabled person is largely irrelevant. He has a central advisory role to play in his relationship with Parnassus, a former eastern monk, often acting as his conscience.

Similarly, he has helped Doctor Parnassus struggle with the consequences of a Faustian pact for immortality made with the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), many centuries before. To cut a complex story very short, the Doctor is faced with handing his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to the Devil. That is until he is offered a new challenge: a chance to win her back.

The moral poles of good and evil seem to be embodied in Doctor Parnassus and Mr Nick. Similarly, collective storytelling and the power of the imagination are pitted against individual choice and consumerist pleasures and there is an ongoing dialogue on the values of difference and ‘normality’. For instance, Valentina’s secret dream is to build a perfect home and a nuclear family, having dedicated a shrine to snippets from ‘Ideal Home’ magazine.

Greed, status and moral choice are futher themes that dominate in the visitors’ experiences of the Imaginarium and in the journey made by Tony (Heath Ledger), after he is rescued by the troupe (he is found hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge, in circumstances which echo Roberto Calvi’s death). Accordingly, in the phantasamogorical world beyond the Imaginarium’s mirrored doors we are treated to lurid scenes of rabid consumerism and naked ambition, which feature death, destruction and ‘purification’ along the way.

As a member of a travelling sideshow troupe, Percy’s role as a circus attraction ‘freak’ is familiar territory. A number of opportunities for transgression however are seized.

From the start of the film we are witnesses to the prejudice and hostility of non-disabled people. He is the main target of abuse from the feral (and rather stereotyped) northern tourists and is subjected to the contempt of local policemen and insults from Tony.

Sparring between these two characters brought the film to life, rescuing Percy from his somewhat martyred role as the Doctor's guardian, and providing Verne Troyer with some of the best dialogue in the film. When Tony regains consciousness after his rescue, he asks where he is and Percy replies, ‘Geographically, somewhere in London; socially, on the margins; and narratively, some way to go.'

At times like this, it appears that Percy is the prime storyteller, a status that is reflected in the subversion of the Rumplestiltskin role. This is seen most obviously in the fight to rescue Valentina from the Devil. In my pleasure at viewing such a strong and relatively nuanced disabled character, I found myself trying to forgive the worst lines of the film: Doctor Parnassus asks, ‘What would I do without you?' And Percy’s reply? ‘Get a midget.'

In the wake of Heath Ledger’s death, the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell presented the multiple personalities of Tony beyond the mirrored doors in a disturbing though seamless manner. These performances added to the portrayal of Tony as a slippery, sleazy if charming man, the disgraced leader of a children’s charity ‘Suffer the Children’. Tony first appears as a grubby saint dressed in a white suit, soiled from his near-death experiences This demeanour unravels throughout the film. Even the Devil disapproves of his charitable deeds.

Many of this film’s pleasures are, for better or worse, made possible through extravagant visual landscapes and carnivalesque scenes featuring Tony, Valentina and the Puckish Anton (Andrew Garfield). Despite its flaws and the sad history of its production, this is a wonderful fairy tale for our time. Both entertaining and disturbing, it deals with the complexity of moral choice, lampooning charity and challenging social hierarchy with its focus on the grotesque  remaining firmly on consumerism, greed and ruthless ambition.

Keywords: film,restricted growth,subversion,