I’ll admit it right now, although it will become clear as you read the review, I’m a Gilliam fan. Time Bandits was my first love, and through the epic Orwellian nightmare of Brazil to the future imperfect of Twelve Monkeys every new journey I take with Gilliam is a pleasure to behold. When he spoke at the BFI late last year Gilliam spoke enthusiastically about the then-unreleased Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and his passion and playfulness were tangible, and every frame of the film, now out on DVD, is testament to the man’s imagination and capability.

You’ll know the tragedy which lies at the heart of Parnassus and it is difficult to attempt to let Heath Ledger disappear into his character in the film, though it is an inexhaustible performance of dislocation and delirium and as he finds himself attached to the mysterious travelling sideshow of the titular Doctor and his company of players it is both his past, and that of the good Doctor himself which Gilliam threads together in the narrative.

The grimy, lewd London streets are populated with the crude and boisterous and the archaic travelling show trundles through the various locations (including a B&Q very close to where I live) with a slow, uncertain destination and it allows the characters to launch to the fore as the initial confusion gives way to an active and absorbing mystery, coloured by some truly sublime flights of fancy once we are through the stage mirror. The trailers gave a good indication of what to expect from Gilliam’s fantastic visions on the other side, and it is the mixture of a partly seductive, partly terrifying alternate world which gives the film its visual flavour.

Andrew Garfield (recently seen with his head in a computer box in Spike Jonze’s outstanding short I’m Here) is truly mesmerising in his role as one of the Parnassus players, and this gives me great hope for his forthcoming turns in Never Let Me Go and the Fincher/Sorkin Facebook film The Social Network. His work here is riddled with pathos and frenzied confusion, never out of place and acting as a sole anchor of sanity in this strange bubble of madness which is travelling around London. Lily Cole is perfect as the wide-eyed daughter of Parnassus, Valentina, and hopefully will become one a member of Gilliam’s regulars and avoiding the more obvious St. Trinians fare. She and Christopher Plummer as the mercurial Doctor have a number of excellent scenes together and act as the heart of the film.

Ledger’s Tony is a wonderful creation of Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown and while I would be loved the opportunity to see Ledger complete his role and play Tony while in the Imaginarium itself Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law give decent performances, gracefully respectful to Ledger and the rest of the cast and complete what is a stunning cast at top form. Special mention must also go to Tom Waits as the enigmatic and garrulous Mr. Nick, giving a performance of pitch perfect phantasmagoria – the film is worth watching for him alone.

Gilliam’s imagination is brought to life with the help of some outlandish CGI which only occasionally threaten to overwhelm your senses, yet everything in the real world is broken and beautiful and given real weight by a fine script and wonderful performances. It is not an easy film, and by that I mean it will engage you morally and emotionally and is all the more rich for it. Few directors are willing to challenge you and with Parnassus it is as if Gilliam has grabbed you by the arm and is running breathlessly through his imagination with eagerness and excitement, and while it may be a struggle to keep up , the journey is most definitely worth taking.

The DVD extras are listed below, and while there is an inevitable focus on Ledger there are some wonderful featurettes on Gilliam himself, which are worth buying this DVD for alone.

  • Feature Introduction by Terry Gilliam
  • Heath Ledger & Friends
  • Heath Ledger Interview
  • Heath Ledger Wardrobe Test with optional commentary by Terry Gilliam
  • Director’s Commentary
  • Deleted Scene with optional commentary by Terry Gilliam
  • The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam
  • Building the Monastery
  • Behind the Mirror
  • UK Premiere Featurette