Terry Gilliam has a reverence for failure. In his movie The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges talks (ruefully) of Nietzsche’s “bungled and botched…expendable masses” who “get close to greatness, but never get there.” In a Gilliam movie, the hero is always either a fool or a madman, someone who sees much but blows his chances, aims high but is often speared by the world. As screen alter-egos go, these characters are candidly self-lacerating. Alexander Pope’s aphorism “To err is human…” is like a dare to Gilliam. He needs to conceive of movies that can’t work in order to prove that they can. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a case in point.
A Faust-like character named after the home of the ancient Muses, Doctor Parnassus is a thousand-year-old fool and a gambler. Long ago, he made a deal with the Devil that would grant him eternal life, on condition that, should Parnassus ever have a daughter, at the age of sixteen she would become the Devil’s prize. Through centuries, the Devil has toyed with Parnassus, but now, in present-day London, the Doctor meets a young man who may be able to help him outfox Beelzebub. One problem is: the young man comes to Parnassus with no memory. The other problem is: this maybe-saviour is found hanging by a noose from London Bridge.
Heath Ledger literally enters dead. It’s a first scene so stupendously tactless that it stops you worrying (in an odd way) what your reaction should be to his final performance. While the audience is weighing up the moral vicissitudes of even looking at Ledger, Gilliam strings him up for starters. My bet is; the actor would have liked the honesty of this approach. There was something about Heath Ledger – his carpenter’s face, the ridges of his smile; his oft-abused hair – that said: to hell with propriety. He made a lot of crap, and you sensed he knew it, but also you sensed the crap was bearing him somewhere. Parnassus is not his destination, but – playing a man who tricks the Devil, cheats death, and wows the girls – Ledger appears like a tantalising ghost… making promises we know he can’t keep.
As Parnassus and the Devil, respectively, Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits play their roles broad, the way Gilliam likes it. Plummer (a man who once played a Shakespeare-loving Klingon in a Star Trek movie) has no problem with the surreal nature of his character. He latches on the wrongheaded, stubborn, King Lear-ness of Parnassus and even manages to dangle from a CGI cliff with an air of tragedy. He’s abetted by Waits, who brings out the Vaudeville in the Devil’s act. Like archaic comedians going through a clapped-out routine, they circle each other – professional, even cordial, in their blood feud.
London in Parnassus is Lily Cole, the model-turned-actress who plays the Doctor’s daughter. Cole, who looks like Millais’s “Ophelia”, has one of those now-hard, now-soft London voices that speak of money and getting unexpectedly stabbed in the dark (a pretty accurate hint of the city), and Gilliam dresses her to look like a homeless girl caught in a lingerie advert. She can’t act, but looking the way she does, it hardly matters. Much the way, a thousand years ago, Uma Thurman appeared in Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen as Venus, now Cole adopts the role of Beauty for Beauty’s Sake.
There’s a curate’s egg quality to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Admittedly, with that mouthful of a title, the end result was unlikely to be without flaws. But, as ever with Terry Gilliam, all the broken pieces are somehow precious. After all, nobody else on Earth would make a movie like this. A clattering, dazzling, Heath Robinson contraption, filled with idiosyncrasies and gormless, half-noble ideas; it’s not a monument to Heath Ledger, but rather, the sort of movie that Heath’s success allowed him to risk. Don’t go in expecting it all to make sense. It’s a story of failure. Some are bound to get lost.