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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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 week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick