Unfinished Sympathy: A Strangely Underpowered Effort from Terry Gilliam, Writes Ryan Gilbey
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (12A)
dir: Terry Gilliam
Heath Ledger's final completed performance, as well as his most inspired one, was as the Joker in The Dark Knight. But it is The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which the actor was working on when he died in January 2008, that can boast of featuring his last filmed material. There's not much else it can boast about. Ledger's performance is one of many provisional elements in a picture that feels at best underpowered, at worst unfinished.
The director, Terry Gilliam, reconfigured the script he wrote with Charles McKeown so that Ledger now becomes one of four people playing the same part, along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. I suppose Gilliam was forced to hire whichever jobbing actors happened to be at a loose end that week, but then beggars can't be choosers.
The film begins promisingly, with the disorientating sight of a rickety, horse-drawn wooden caravan pulling up in front of a London nightclub. This is the travelling sideshow of Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a l,000-year-old sage who doesn't look a day over 998. Together with his company--his daughter, Val-entina (Lily Cole), the showman Anton (Andrew Garfield) and the sniping dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer)--the doctor offers bystanders a tour of their own imaginations.
Through a Cocteau-style magic mirror, they step into a world shaped by their own desires. This is where a Gilliam film should go into orbit, but the fantasies are oddly listless, the ideas behind them mundane. A drunk staggers through a river of empty bottles, and a child weaned on Nintendo opens fire on a candy-coloured landscape. Compare this to the warped spectacle of other imagination-bound pictures such as The Cell or Dreamscape and it can only look insipid. When a fur-coated, middle-aged woman marvels at a metropolis of giant shoes, we could be witnessing a nod to Katherine Helmond's leopard-print heel, worn upside-down as a hat in Gilliam's Brazil, or just the limitations of the director's satirical mind.
Into the company's hermitic life drifts Tony (Ledger), a white-suited amnesiac who offers to improve the show's commercial fortunes. …