Despite what Michael Jackson would have us believe, This is, in fact, it. This is Gilliam’s shot at the big time. Never mind the fact that he is one of the most brilliantly inventive, dedicated and passionate film makers ever, this is his last chance to show those money hogging, suit wearing bitches, that he can get bums on seats too. And I hope he does – I know a lot of people who have been to see this film, the type I wouldn’t imagine typically seeing a Gilliam film. Sure they came away with a predictable reaction – it was a bit weird – but they saw it, and enjoyed it.
We’re in modern day London, announces the oddly medieval onscreen script, a weirdly tall and narrow horse and cart pulls through the darkened rainy streets. The show, for it is such, pitches up outside a busy nightclub where drunken revellers are spilling onto the street. The rickety cart opens and unfolds to reveal that perennial Gilliam favourite; a shabby flea circus theatre, ancient and ramshackle. Onstage the pitiful band of the immortal Dr Parnassus and his followers try to tempt the revellers with their fantastical tales. Parnassus sits motionless in a trance while his crew spin a wistful tale. Straight away the conceit is clear – the world has left these performers behind, the drunken revellers don’t care for stories or imagination and after a boozy bust up Valentina, Parnassus’ long limbed daughter, is chased through the stage mirror to the back of the stage. Except of course these travelling oddballs are the genuine article and the mirror in fact leads into the recesses of Parnassus’ entranced mind. Inside the imaginarium, reality is what you make it, and so each journey within is never the same twice. The reveller quickly meets a sticky end inside for reasons that become apparent later.
And so off they trot, after giving the dopey filth the slip for the missing pisshead, to find another pitch to tell their tales and expand some minds again. The crew is four strong. There’s Parnassus himself, Valentina, Anton – the downtrodden dreamer madly in love with Valentina, and Percy, Vern Troyer’s even-smaller-than-a-midget coachmen/advisor. Together they roll around the streets of London looking for punters to enthral with their stories, and to guide to blissful transcendence from their everyday lives through Parnassus’ fantastical imaginarium, but clearly times are tough. Valentina dreams of escape. Anton dreams of Valentina, and Parnassus simply dreams. And drinks.
Also, even more trouble is afoot, for it emerges that Valentina’s 16th birthday is approaching and Parnassus’ very long history is about to catch up with him. The story is gradually revealed throughout, but much is clear from very early on – a shadowy figure displays an unhealthy interest in Valentina and Parnassus knows him well. A thousand years ago, when he was a young monk (!) Parnassus had a little run in with a moustachioed Tom Waits with a knack for magic and a penchant for gambling. This was, he tells Valentina, the first time he struck a bet with the Devil. The good Doctor was locked in battle with Mr Nick to see who could save or destroy the most souls through offering simple choice to the folk who entered his imaginarium, a bet which Parnassus won and gained his immortality – which of course turned into a curse as times changed and he and his stories became ancient and irrelevant. But back to Valentina, and many hundreds of years later Parnassus meets his one true love, and Mr Nick crops up again to make another deal – in exchange for his youth given back to him allowing him to court this beautiful creature, Nick will claim any offspring they bear on reaching it’s 16th birthday. Well, the Doc agreed and lo and behold many many years of blissful marriage later, out pops Valentina. Oh dear – things are just looking up for Lily, and now it seems the Devil's going to cart her off for his amusement. But ever the gambler, Mr Nick, in the present now, makes another offer; if Parnassus agrees to resurrect their old favourite game - If he can "enlighten" five souls before Mr Nick, Valentina's soul can be saved.
The start of this new wager is marked by the arrival of a new member of the troupe – the enigmatic Tony (Heath Ledger). Found hanging by his neck under London Bridge, initially dead, he quickly comes back to life and becomes a central figure in the travelling show. Immediately an object of much fascination for Valentina and deep suspicion by the jealous Anton, Tony is a mysterious figure, never fully explained. Without a memory (so he claims) and with strange markings on his forehead and apparently some magic of his own, he tags along with the show, seemingly unfazed by the enchanting secrets behind Parnassus’ mirror, and together they set about saving souls and ultimately Valentina’s. But his murky past cannot remain hidden and as the competition hots up it becomes clear that Valentina's soul is at the mercy of her own choices, just like everyone else's.
So there is a plot. That is it. It is weird, no doubt – fantastical and imaginative and where anything can happen and does. At the heart of it is the notion explored in the early flashback scene, where the young Parnassus first meets Mr Nick. In it he explains that the monk's purpose is to tell the eternal story - the idea being that should they stop telling it, the world will cease to be. Nick proves that wrong by sucking their voices from their mouths. See, he croaks, we're all still here. Ah but, rebutts Parnassus, someone somewhere else in the world is telling the story, and so here we remain. Brilliant. It’s no surprise to learn the story was co-penned by Baron Munchausen creator CharlesMcKeown; the script positively drips the Baron’s whimsy; an immortal (ish) protagonist, the notion that storytelling is as vital to humanity as breathing, the power of the imagination to alter our reality – these themes are all central to Parnassus.
Gilliam's focus looks to have been elsewhere however as he has clearly found a bit of a muse in Cole. While she too never blows us away with her acting chops, being as she is, just about passable, she is simply fascinating to look at, and Gilliam frequently seems unable to tear his lens away from her extraordinary face. Special mention must also be made of course of Tom Waits, who should probably always be cast as the Devil. His portrayal as the playful, whimsical Prince of Darkness is magnificently funny, as is Plummer's boozy old immortal himself.
The imaginarium itself is beautifully realised – vast in its scope, its juxtaposition to the drab real world is jarring, so full as it is of colour and mad ideas propped up on wacky notions. At times it descends into pure Monty Python territory, a Ben and Jerry landscape with chorus lines of dancing policemen – you half expect a giant foot to descend from the heavens to squash a villain. That said, the real world, relatively drab as it is, is made quite lovely too, London looking better than ever. As he did for New York in the Fisher King, in Gilliam’s London magic and mystery lurk in every nook and litter strewn alley. Quite how he makes these ramshackle existences so appealingly beautiful is beyond me.
Some more logical types may find the obscurity of the tale frustrating. Tony’s origin is never fully explained, and it is fair to say that he is a contradictory character – at once seemingly genuinely committed to helping Parnassus win the bet and saving Valentina, while at the same time (or at least in the final act) revealing his dark side of twisted morals and dodgy past. Does he deserve the ending he is met with? Not on the basis of what we see – but is this morality tale half the point? – that we are a bundle of contradictory impulses and notions eternally at odds with one another, and we will ultimately get what’s coming to us no matter what we do? No idea! Answers on a postcard please. What’s clear is that this isn’t the kind of movie in which one should expect the answers to be signposted, for essays could, and will be, written about what it's all about. It would be fair to say though that it does somewhat lose it's way in the final act, where the mystery descends into plain old head scratching.
But frankly sod all that, if you wanted your film to make sense you should have gone to see This is It. Possibly a bad example. Anyway, Parnassus is at heart a Gilliam fairy tale, told in his inimitable style, as full of wacky, humorous imagination as the imaginarium itself. So if you happen to like a Gilliam fairytale, you should happily settle in for his best in recent memory.