Terry Gilliam is cursed.

Ok, I’m certainly not the first to think this (Googling should find thousands of hits on this topic), but it’s clear that he’s one of those tortured souls who seems to have to struggle constantly for his art. From acts of God to the machinations of studio hacks and unscrupulous producers, he’s had to bite and claw for almost every film he’s ever made.

And now, alas, he’s had an actor die while filming a movie.

The circumstances of Heath Ledger’s death and subsequent Oscar win are well told, to be sure. And, inevitably, it’s Heath’s contribution to this film that will be discussed and scrutinized, much the way that James Dean’s last films have undergone critical microscope.

Yet all this, surely, is besides the point. Terry Gilliam has made a wonderful film. Heath Ledger puts in a fine, supporting performance, equal to the other supporting characters he plays alongside (including those famous friends that step in, elegantly and well within the plot of the film, to rescue those scenes that he didn’t get to shoot). After all, this is a film centered around Christopher Plummer and (I fear overlooked by many) a deliciously diabolical Tom Waits.

Gilliam has trod roads like this before – this film fits in comfortably with Munchausen and some of his more flamboyant contributions to the Python show, from cross dressing policemen to zany, psychedelic landscapes that seem ripped from some book of etchings. But it is the character of Parnasus, the poor, long suffering
man who simply wants to ignite the imagination of his audience, to keep telling the story (lest the world come to an end), where we see what can only be interpreted as the most autobiographical of Gilliam’s whimsical characters.

Through Parnasus and his gambles and sacrifices, we see Gilliam at a certain peak of his career, looking into his weird, wonderful brain for another glimpse at the oddly spectacular. Yet the good Doctor is linked, inexorably, to his nemesis, one who both torments him, yet provides the means by which his stories continue to be told. After all, Gilliam has no doubt signed enough deals with his own devils to owe more than his lot of souls.

Besides all those elements, we’re left with another wonderful contribution to this film, the casting of Lily Cole as Parnasus’ daughter. Absolutely radiant on screen, the wide eyed, moon-faced woman seems plucked from 20s cinema, if not some 15th century painting. Gilliam once again has a woman of such astonishing beauty
that he can faithfully recreate the Botticelli’s Venus vingette, complete with half-shell. While Uma certainly has her own unique beauty on screen, far from the dreary, plastic Barbie-dolls of traditional Hollywood, in Cole he finds someone that he can shoot with such care, such passion that she simply leaps from the screen.

Oh, and Vern Troyer is less annoying than you may expect.

In the end, then, go see this as a modern triumph from Mr. Terry G, not merely in order to placate the posthumous fascination that one may feel for the departed Heath. This is the type of film that they simply don’t make often anymore, and if it was in Spanish and directed by some guy named Del Toro, it’d immediately jump to the top of any cineaste list. As it stands, this is a wonderful, well paced fable, overly earnest in every way possible while still being immensely entertaining. Bravo, Terry and company, it’s refreshing to see your imagination once again come alive in a way that’s, frankly, a hell of a lot more fun that what you’ve been doing of late. Plus, it’s a pleasure to actually be able to review a film of yours without taking years to think about something constructive to say.

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