The film community has always had high hopes for 'Imaginarium,' mostly because it is the late actor Heath Ledger's final role. The film revolves around a centuries-old leader of a travelling theatre (Christopher Plummer) who has made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits) in order to achieve immortality. He spends his days (alongside his daughter, played by supermodel Lily Cole) coaxing his audience through a magical mirror to a dream world in which they can literally live in their imaginations.
If you're confused, brace yourself, because the above synopsis is a distilled version of an even more baffling storyline that was virtually impossible to follow in the theatre. In fact, after a pre-festival 'Imaginarium' screening, we were told that some of the slides had been projected out of order. Some of us held out hope that maybe that was the reason we got so lost. As it turned out, the switch had to do with the order of two rather minor scenes and didn't clear up anything at all, really.
Gilliam's film has one thing going for it, however, and that is perfect casting. Plummer is in his element as the exhausted alcoholic theatre leader whose centuries on earth can be read in every wrinkle of his face. Meanwhile, Cole's kewpie doll face is the perfect mix of innocence and dream-like fantasy, which her character, the theatre leader's daughter, personifies. And who could play the devil more convincingly than the gravely-voiced Tom Waits? Finally, Ledger is unctuously seductive as Tony, a mysterious outsider who joins the troupe (the actor allegedly improvised half his comedic dialogue).
Despite its cast's best efforts, however, 'Imaginarium' crumbles around them. Self-indulgent and overly ambitious, Gilliam spews all his thoughts on imagination and immortality onto the screen with no care for narrative continuity. The film's aesthetic, storyline and pace are as patchy as Parnassus' home-made stage curtain and the characters flit in and out of each scene like aimless fireflies. It's hard not to emerge from the shadows of the theatre without a huge "What the hell was that?" expression enveloping your face.
"I want audiences to come out with shards stuck in them," Gilliam has said of his work. "I don't care if people love my films or walk out, as long as they have a strong response." Does confusion count? If so, Gilliam will be more than pleased at the audience's response to the mess that is his 'Imaginarium.'