The Imaginarium of Doctor Panassus, Terry Gilliam, 122 mins (12A)

1.00

There are moments in the new Terry Gilliam movie when his florid animations burst out of nowhere, reminding you of those giant trompe l'oeils he famously conjured for Monty Python.

It is a shame that Gilliam didn't settle for being an animator, because these squiggles of invention are so much more his forte than film directing. Whatever cult status he's been living off since Brazil (1985) has dwindled drastically in the last 10 years, partly due to misfortune (his cherished Don Quixote film collapsed in bad weather and money trouble) and partly due to a string of duds (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, Tideland) whose only surprise was that somebody was willing to finance them in the first place. Those films had plenty of Gilliam's trademark visual invention; what they absolutely lacked was the smallest notion of how to tell a story. That's quite an important skill for a film-maker to have.

The title of his latest does not encourage us to hope that Gilliam has learnt it. As soon as you see the word "imaginarium" you think: this will not be short of anything zany, wacky or loopy, but it might be short on anything that makes sense. And so it proves. It opens in nighttime London, where a group of travelling players have set up their tatty vaudeville show. Two eager young souls, Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Valentina (Lily Cole), prance about on stage while a gaggle of yobs hurl insults at them. In the background presides an old chalky-faced tippler and father of Valentina, one Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), whose imaginarium – entered via a tinfoil curtain – leads to an alternate looking-glass world in which initiates choose their own heaven or hell. "Don't worry if you don't understand it all immediately," confides the good Doctor. Thanks for the warning.

The vaudevillian caravan staggers on, in the course of which a vague plot begins to emerge. Tom Waits, bowler-hatted and bow-tied, plays Mr Nick – the Devil, probably – with whom Parnassus struck a deal a long time back. In exchange for his immortality he agreed to hand over Valentina when she reaches her 16th birthday, now a matter of days hence. But no sooner has this pact been established than Gilliam changes it; Mr Nick agrees to let Parnassus keep his daughter so long as he can claim five souls in two days. What this could mean, or how it might happen, is never made clear. No time to ponder, either, because the film has lurched on to its next situation, one which, in the light of events, carries a tragic undertow.

The players spot a man swinging from his neck beneath Blackfriars Bridge, and rescue him from an attempted suicide. The man, a shady chancer named Tony, is played by Heath Ledger in his final role. An uncompleted role, at that, for the actor died before filming was through.

The odd thing is that the trio of stars Gilliam recruited to fill in for the unfortunate Ledger – Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell – don't look out of place, because nothing about the movie feels in place. The rubber ball of invention requires the stout wooden floor of realism to bounce off, but Gilliam's screenplay hasn't provided any floors. Or walls. Or ceilings. What he does is to devise dreamlike set-pieces, hopping from one to another like a frog to a lily pad.

Under these conditions the actors have to take their chances. Gilliam has admitted that he "allowed more ad-libbing on this film than on anything I have ever done," principally because Heath Ledger was "so full of ideas and fresh dialogue". That is the sort of commendation to make a film critic's blood run cold. The actor had just come from playing the Joker, and actually looks worn out, so Gilliam was either being nice or else is a hopeless judge of fresh dialogue. When Ledger has to do a spiel in front of a bunch of shoppers in Leadenhall Market the effort of it – his being suave, their being charmed – is horribly stilted and false. It's nearly always a terrible idea to let actors improvise in any case; they are there to interpret, not to invent. Andrew Garfield, a bright star in the making (Kid A, Lions for Lambs), struggles gamely with the extra burden imposed on him. You keep noticing dead spots in the script where the actors don't seem to have been properly directed.

Perhaps kids will respond to it more readily than adults, what with the shape-shifting (Tom Waits's head twists from a river in the form of a giant cobra) and the jokey interplay between innocence and experience. Lily Cole does creditably in her role as the coquettish Valentina; Christopher Plummer, enjoying a great "late" period, has the look of a soup-kitchen Dumbledore. Younger audiences might also be more tolerant of the Potterish swoops into fantasy which the Imaginarium enables, and they probably won't want to miss Ledger in his final bow (I'd much prefer to remember him for Brokeback Mountain and Monster's Ball).

It says something for the director – I'm not sure what precisely – that stars of Ledger's calibre want to work with him. But then Terry Gilliam's whole career seems mysterious to me. Nobody would doubt that he's possessed of an extravagant imagination. It's just unfortunate that what he imagines is very, very boring.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'