The most amazing thing about Doctor Parnassus is that it was made for £18 million. That’s considerably less than one season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In terms of bang-per-buck, Parnassus is an atomic explosion for 50p.
The second most amazing thing about Parnassus is that it got made at all. Terry Gilliam has always been a precarious director, as Lost In La Mancha testifies. The meagre funding was split between six studios who agreed to finance it because Heath Ledger was in it. Heath Ledger died, then two days after filming wrapped, William Vince died of cancer, and then Gilliam himself was hit by a car. “They got the star, the producer, and they were going for the director, and the f***ers failed on the last one. Whoever they are…” Gilliam grimly recalls.
Beating the odds is essentially the plot to Doctor Parnassus. The eponymous immortal showman (Christopher Plummer) must win five souls before the devilish Mr Nick (Tom Waits) or risk losing his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Parnassus would bring the souls to life-affirming adventures of the imagination; Mr Nick would lure them to shallow thrills. Doctor Parnassus runs a theatre troupe staffed by his BFF Percy (Verne Troyer), Valentina and her would-be boyfriend Anton (Andrew Garfield). The show is a ruse to invite audience members to pass through a magic mirror into Parnassus’s imagination where they will choose between enlightenment or addiction. When the troupe rescues amnesiac Tony (Ledger), he sets about revitalising the ragged stage act while trying to steal Valentina’s heart.
It’s visually as striking as you’d expect from Terry Gilliam, and looks like a film of many times its budget. Plummer, Waits, Troyer, Garfield and – for the most part – Ledger turn in solid performances, though Ledger’s Mockney accent keeps slipping. Supermodel Lily Cole has apparently been taking acting lessons since childhood, though it seems she wasn’t quite ready for her first leading role. Some scences would rival all but the greatest of actresses; others are sub-Eastenders. It would seem churlish to criticise Ledger’s three close friends who stepped into his shoes, but they aren’t great. In order to complete the film, Gilliam approached three of Ledger’s friends – Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell – and they donated their fees to Ledger’s young daughter (since she’d been unintentionally missed in his will). You can be someone else in the Imaginarium, see, so Tony takes on the appearance of e.g. Valentina’s fantasy. Johnny Depp had only one day to film his scenes, so everything had to be done in one take. It’s testament to his talent that he is merely unremarkable. Law and Farrell are equally bland, though they’re gamely trying their best. Inevitably due to the circumstances, the pacing of the film is uneven and it seriously flags in the third act, though it picks up well towards the end.
Despite its many flaws, Parnassus is a beautiful and memorable film that could no doubt bear repeated viewings.