17 December, 2009

Nothing is permanent, not even death

So here's the thing.

I love Terry Gilliam films, have done ever since I caught the wonderful Adventures of Baron Munchausen when it aired on television in the early 90s and was astonished by the brilliance and imagination on the screen. At university, I quickly absorbed every film he had made (Brazil is now my second-favourite film), and these days eagerly await every new release from the filmmaker. (Although I confess I haven't yet seen Tideland - I want to, but I keep putting it off since I'm a little bit afraid to watch it). There's something particularly exciting about seeing a new Gilliam film - it's not just "Yay, another film from a director I like", there's a real sense that it's a miracle every time he manages to complete a movie. Gilliam is easily one of the most notoriously embattled film directors, needing to struggle to produce every minute of film. (He recently walked around Hollywood wearing a sandwich board only half-jokingly reading "Studioless filmmaker will direct for food", and his production difficulties have even been the subject of a very funny article in The Onion.) Gilliam famously fought with Universal to protect Brazil from being released in the US in a severely re-edited and drastically changed cut (a fight that was later detailed in the brilliant book The Battle For Brazil). Baron Munchausen went well over budget and was at the time one of the largest film flops ever. His film of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote collapsed after only two weeks of unsuccessful filming in a mess of NATO jets, flash floods, and health problems. (A decade later, Gilliam is finally resuming production on Don Quixote.) One of the big problems that I think leads to Gilliam's troubles is that his films are usually not exactly commercial films, they're very personal, almost art films. At the same time, his distinctive visuals and wild imagination mean that his films demand a much higher budget - still low budget when compared to most major Hollywood blockbusters, but still higher budget than your typical arthouse movie - and with higher budgets come higher requirements for box-office returns and greater difficulty raising money for a filmmaker whose box-office potential can vary wildly.

So, (and I hate to be callous, but) I think it is understandable that when Heath Ledger died, while I had all the expected reactions to his death (surprise and shock, sorrow for his family, and sadness at the loss of an actor that I rather liked), one of the first things that occured to me was "What about Doctor Parnassus?" I knew that Heath Ledger had a major role in the new Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - indeed, I knew that Ledger's presence in the film was a pivotal element in securing funding for the budget. (The film's other stars - Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer - aren't exactly box-office names, but Heath Ledger's attachment encouraged investment in the film in the hope that his name might attract audiences.) I also knew they had completed a substantial amount of filming, but it was by no means complete. So I had resigned myself to the knowledge that Parnassus was another Gilliam film that would never be.

Then, one day, it was announed that production on Doctor Parnassus was resuming, and that Gilliam had managed to get Johnny Depp (who worked with Gilliam on the aborted Don Quixote, as well as on Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas), as well as Jude Law and Colin Farrell, to complete Heath Ledger's role. It seemed that much of the film took place in the real world, but there were a number of significant sequences that took place in a fantasy world. Filming had finished on the real-world scenes, and the only scenes remaining were those set in the fantasy world. With a couple of minor changes to the script, we now had a film in which Heath Ledger's character Tony changes his appearance in the fantasy world. It was undeniably a cheat intended to work around an unavoidable problem, but for me it was exciting news, since it meant that we would still get to see the film.

And then I saw the film. And I loved the film. But what surprised me was the fact that the actor changes don't seem like a cheat at all - in fact, it seemed as though it was always intended. There are three major scenes where Tony goes through the mirror into the world beyond (hence the three actors playing the role), but the first two times, Tony enters the mirror while wearing a mask that covers the top half of his face, but not his distinctive facial hair. (And bear in mind, that was how it was scripted and filmed with Ledger on set.) This means, for the first few minutes inside the mirror, the audience isn't thinking "who is that?", they're just following Tony wearing a mask. Once the mask is removed to reveal the new actor, there's a brief "Hello, I've changed face" moment, but the scenes proceed on very quickly. (The final time Tony enters the mirror, he's not wearing a mask, but by then we've grown accustomed to the changing face of Tony, so there's no confusion for the audience about who Colin Farrell is supposed to be.) Add to that that there are certain reasons why it is understandable that this particular character more than any other would change so dramatically every time he enters this other world - indeed, it highlights significant aspects of the person that Tony is. And it's not like Tony is the only character to change their appearance in the mirror world - some of the others we see in this world do grow older or younger, even if the change is not quite as dramatic as Tony's. (Although this could be a post-death change intended to pave the way for Tony's more obvious change.) So I was pleased to find that the actor replacement, which could have been disruptive for the audience, instead works seamlessly, and may in fact have actually improved the film.

But, moving on from the replacement of one of the film's most important characters, what is Doctor Parnassus like as a film? It revolves around a thousand-year-old monk who (through a complicated backstory) gained immortality following a bet with the devil, but now owes the devilish Mr Nick his nearly-16-year-old daughter. So the good doctor (who travels around modern-day London with his anachronistic horse-drawn sideshow allowing people to enter an alternate world through a magic mirror) makes one final bet with the devil in an effort to save his daughter. As you've probably picked up from that description, it's a very curious film - in the Gilliam oeuvre, it probably feels closest to a Baron Munchausen in tone. And as a Gilliam fan who is frankly amazed to even get to see this film finished at all, I'm hardly unbiased in my assessment, but I really did love this film.

The acting in the film is excellent, not just from Heath Ledger and the other Tonys, but also from Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits. As Parnassus, Plummer gives the role a haunted weariness, a knowledge of the curse that immortality would be, and a growing desperation as he faces the possibility of losing his daughter. Meanwhile Tom Waits plays Mr Nick perfectly - the character never fully loses his menace, we're always aware of exactly who he is and exactly what the consequences are of his winning the bet, both for Parnassus' daughter and for those people at the centre of the bet. Yet there's a mischievious element to his playing of the game that is quite delightful, and the character clearly genuinely likes competing against his long-time opponent. These excellent performances are supported by the remaining cast, with particular attention needing to be paid to the performance of Lily Cole as Parnassus's daughter Valentina. I've never seen Cole before - she's apparently best known as a model - but she manages to present a strong worldly sexuality while still retaining the curious naivety of someone who has never had a normal life or really lived in the real world. It's quite a compelling performance that I really enjoyed.

I was watching the (excellent) Monty Python: Almost The Truth documentary last night, and seeing footage of the young Gilliam directing Holy Grail, set against interview footage of Gilliam these days, it really hits home that he's getting on a bit. (He turned 69 just last month.) And it's surprising how obvious Gilliam's age is in the film - this is the film of someone who has realised he doesn't have as much time on the earth as he once did. Death pervades the film - our first meeting on Tony follows a failed attempt to kill the man, the central character sought immortality to avoid death but now regrets that choice, and various other character look for ways to ward off death just for the moment, although that threat remains everpresent in the film.

(One of the film's most uncomfortable scenes comes when Johnny Depp fills the role of Tony. He accompanies a woman inside the mirror, until they find a stream where little barges float down carrying pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, Princess Diana, James Dean. When the woman points out that all these people are dead, Tony replies: "To be reborn, first you must die. All of them have achieved a kind of immortality. And we love them all the more for it. They won't get old or fat. They wont get sick or feeble. They are beyond fear. They are forever young. They are gods. And you can join them." It's a line of dialogue that sits uncomfortably in the film, feeling like a too-on-the-nose reference to Ledger's death, and yet that line was in a version of the script written eight months before he died. It's just another indication of the tragic irony that Ledger's last film was one so focused on death.)

If the film has a weakness, it's in its script. The film is very well-written, has an intriguing and enjoyable story, but I couldn't help feeling like the backstory of Parnassus' relationship with the devil wasn't quite as developed as I would have liked. As I mentioned earlier, it was a complicated backstory - perhaps too complicated - and while I have no doubt that Gilliam and Charles McKeown (as screenwriters) are perfectly clear on the backstory, I'm not sure they quite succeeded in making that information sufficiently clear to the viewer.

But that's a minor quibble compared to what the film does right. And what it really does well is give Gilliam an opportunity to exercise his imagination. Right from the film's early moments, where an incongruous horse-drawn carriage pulling a carnival sideshow sets up outside a modern-day London pub, there is little doubt that this is Gilliam's imagination given full flight, and the various journeys into the many different fantasy worlds offer an incredibly rich visual treat. Gilliam is a director whose works cry out for high-definition and Blu-Ray, where the audience can just explore the depth of his imagined world, and Parnassus is no exception. It truly is a wonderful cinematic experience.