It’s taken me the better part of six months to write this review, because every time I’ve tried to take some deep angle on this film it’s not been quite as deep as I think when I pick my starting point. It’s a film that’s juggling a lot of interesting bits’n’pieces, all of which somehow feel under-done. At root, it’s a kind of (a)morality tale, centring around choice and consequence, but both the choices and the consequences are kept lightweight by the performances and the ironic skew of the film. The central plot point is that Dr Parnassus made a deal with the Devil: immortality in exchange for the firstborn, when said child reaches the age of 16. The benefits conferred by immortality are, shall we say, far from apparent; the virtue of the daughter is on firmer ground but 16 is an age where innocence is at best an ambivalent proposition.
The format of the drama is a series of interludes where people pass through a magical portal and into the Imaginarium, which I think we can broadly interpret as a ring-fenced area of Doctor Parnassus’ mind. These are taken as a proxy for a moral challenge, so that some people emerge from the Imaginarium and some are swallowed, depending on their moral choices. But the people engaged in the choices are utterly one dimensional, and their choices are expressed in terms that are incredibly simplistic. The real moral battle is occurring on a different plane, in how the broken family dynamic copes with the intrusion of a catalyst, played by Heath Ledger.
In the end, I really don’t know what to make of this film. It’s a stumper, and that alone probably makes it worth the price of admission.